On 16 May, a Malaysian drug trafficker was reported to be sentenced to death via a Zoom call in Singapore.
The 37-year-old offender, Punithan Genasan, became the first person in Singapore to be handed the death penalty via remote hearing due to the social distancing measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Straits Times, Mr Genasan was found to be complicit in trafficking at least 28.5g of heroin by introducing two couriers to each other in 2011 and later instructing one to drive into Singapore to meet the other.
It was reported that he left Singapore on the day he introduced the two couriers. He was then extradited to Singapore on 21 January 2016. He denied any connection to the duo as well as the testimonies given by them. The testimonies noted that Mr Genasan recruited them to transport drugs, linked them up, and arranged the transaction.
Although the 37-year-old offender then attempted to provide alibi and witnesses to support his claim, his alibi defence was rejected by High Court judge Chan Seng Onn.
Therefore, Mr Genasan was being sentenced to death in a hearing via a video-conferencing platform — Zoom.
To explain why the hearing was done remotely, a spokesperson for Singapore’s Supreme Court said that it was to prioritise everyone’s safety and to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
“For the safety of all involved in the proceedings, the hearing for Public Prosecutor v Punithan A/L Genasan was conducted by video-conferencing,” a spokesperson for Singapore’s Supreme Court said in response to Reuters’ questions, as reported by Reuters.
It was also reported that many court hearings in Singapore had been adjourned during the circuit breaker which came into force on 7 April, while cases deemed essential were held remotely.
After the delivery of the death penalty, Mr Genasan’s lawyer, Peter Fernando, clarified that he did not object to the use of video-conferencing for the call since it was “only to receive the judge’s verdict”. He described that the verdict could be heard clearly, adding that no other legal arguments were presented.
However, this particular sentence received backlash from Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Right’s Watch‘s Asian division.
Mr Robertson criticised the death penalty in Singapore, describing it as “inherently cruel and inhuman”. He commented that it is especially apparent when the death penalty is announced remotely over the video-conferencing platform.
“Singapore’s use of the death penalty is inherently cruel and inhumane, and the use of remote technology like Zoom to sentence a man to death makes it even more so.”
He also told AFP that the prosecutors and the court were “so callous” that they had overlooked the offender’s right to face his accusers physically in the court.
“It’s pretty astounding the prosecutors and the court are so callous that they fail to see that a man facing capital punishment should have the right to be present in court to see his accusers.”
The California-based tech firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment made via its representatives in Singapore.
Apparently, the Human Right’s Watch had also criticised a similar case in Nigeria where a death sentence was delivered via Zoom.