By Arjun Malik
On the first of June, I watched the conclusion of a capital punishment heroin trafficking case in Singapore’s Supreme Court. I was left profoundly disturbed.
As Judge Choo Han Teck announced the sentences in court, the family members of the defendants erupted in pain. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, sons, daughters – their bodies shuddered in agony and tears streaked down their pained faces. Their heartbreaking cries reverberated softly through the crowded courtroom. Two of the three co-defendants, Kalwant Singh and Norasharee Bin Gous, were sentenced to death by hanging. The third defendant’s life was spared for his “substantive assistance” to the authorities. He will be imprisoned for life instead.
Yet even in the presence of such acute intense human suffering, the courtroom proved to be the most unsympathetic of places. The judge, while allowing the families of the defendants to spend some time with their loved ones before they were taken to prison, declared that they could only meet for ten minutes because he had “another matter to attend to”. The public prosecutor instructed the guards to stop some family members from talking to the defendants, presumably because they were not part of the “immediate” family. Could the Singaporean justice system treat these defendants and their families with any more cruelty and indifference?
Even as controversy over capital punishment rages worldwide, support for the death penalty in Singapore remains remarkably strong. Though a legislative change in 2012 made the death penalty no longer mandatory for drug traffickers, prosecutors and judges continue to impose capital punishment for non-violent drug offenses. The dominant Singaporean narrative is that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent against drug crime, despite a complete absence of academic evidence backing up such a viewpoint. As Oxford University professors Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle explain, “It has been argued that the death penalty is an indisputable deterrent to drug trafficking, but no evidence of a statistical kind has been forthcoming to support this contention.” In fact, the death penalty is so accepted that it is often left out of mainstream public discourse. Not a single Singaporean media outlet covered this case or the resulting announcement of death sentences – a situation that would be unthinkable in other developed nations.
There is also a perception that Singapore has robust legal safeguards that prevent it from wrongfully convicting drug traffickers. Admittedly, Singapore enjoys strong rule of law. However, many might be surprised by the flimsiness of evidence that is accepted with such deadly punishments at stake. In this case, there is a serious question as to whether, Kalwant Singh, who acted as a drug courier, was actually aware that he was trafficking heroin. Singh has consistently claimed that he believed he was transporting “panparak” – a preparation of Indian betel leaf, areca nut and tobacco that is regularly consumed in Southeast Asia.
The only major piece of evidence that contradicts Singh’s account is testimony from a co-defendant, Mohamed Yazid. Very conveniently, Yazid was spared the death penalty for his testimony against Singh. Singaporean law allows drug trafficking defendants who provide “substantive assistance” to the authorities to escape the death penalty, providing a strong incentive to testify against others, even dishonestly.
By the Court’s own admission, “a person facing a capital drug offence may falsely implicate his co-accused so as to save himself from the gallows”. Despite this recognition, in his written opinion, the judge comes to the conclusion that “Yazid … had spoken the truth”, thereby convicting Singh and sentencing him to death.
We should never be comfortable executing people on the basis of such questionable evidence.
Moreover, the fact that the majority of people caught up in the drug trade worldwide come from impoverished backgrounds is too often overlooked. It emerged that one of the defendants in the case was earning a measly one hundred Malaysian Ringgit (about twenty-five US Dollars) for each “bundle” of drugs that he delivered. That means he was making a pitiful few hundred dollars every time he took the risk of losing his life. The word “drug trafficker” often evokes images of a wealthy drug kingpin profiting royally off the suffering of addicts. In reality, those executed are very rarely the kingpins who command the drug trade. Instead, like the defendants in this case, they are mostly poor, low-level drug couriers who may have little knowledge of what they are getting themselves into.
There should be little doubt that Singapore’s attitude towards the death penalty for drug traffickers is fraught with misperceptions and half-truths. With a better appreciation of the academic evidence on deterrence, uncertainty in the legal process and the impoverished background of most convicted drug traffickers, one would hope that Singaporeans might reconsider their position. Given the facts, it is hard to fathom how imposing the death penalty for non-violent drug crimes is consistent with basic ideals of fairness and proportionality.
After the verdict was delivered, the agonizing scene I encountered is one I will never forget. The distraught defendants and their families, separated almost entirely by glass, tried desperately to touch each other through a paper-thin slit in the wall. They barely managed to grasp each other’s fingers or meet their lips for a fleeting last kiss. Perhaps, it is only by witnessing the utter state of despair in the courtroom, that people can truly comprehend the gravity of the death penalty. Maybe, after watching a drug trafficking case unfold for themselves, they will leave just as disturbed as I was.