SINGAPORE — On Monday (24 Apr), British tycoon Richard Branson urged Singapore to halt the imminent execution of  Tangaraju Suppiah, a Singaporean who sentenced to death over one kilogram of cannabis, saying it “may be about to kill an innocent man”.

“Tangaraju was actually not anywhere near these drugs at the time of his arrest. This was largely a circumstantial case that relied on inferences,” Branson, who is a member of the Geneva-based Global Commission on Drug Policy, wrote on his blog.

“Killing those at the lowest rungs of the illicit drug supply chain… is hardly effective in curbing an international trade worth hundreds of billions every year,” he said, adding he hoped authorities would review the case.

Tangaraju, aged 46, is set to be hanged on Wednesday (26 Apr), according to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) of Singapore.

However, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) defended that the evidence clearly showed that Tangaraju was “coordinating the delivery of drugs for trafficking”, despite the suggestion that he was innocent because he was “not anywhere near the drugs at the time of his arrest”.

MHA said Mr Branson claimed that Tangaraju’s conviction did not meet the standards for criminal conviction and that “Singapore may be about to kill an innocent man”, is “patently untrue”.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, MHA criticised that Branson’s views on Tangaraju’s execution showed his “disrespect” for the country’s judges and criminal justice system.

“It is regrettable that Mr Branson, in wanting to argue his case, should resort to purporting to know more about the case than Singapore’s Courts, which had examined the case thoroughly and comprehensively over a period of more than three years. ”

“He shows disrespect for Singapore’s judges and our criminal justice system with such allegations. ”

The statement defended Tangaraju’s conviction and sentencing by saying that it was tried before the High Court of Singapore.

Upon examination of all the evidence, including Tangaraju’s defence, the High Court found that the charge against Tangaraju had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Upon Tangaraju’s appeal, the Court of Appeal affirmed the High Court’s findings and upheld the conviction against Tangaraju.”

MHA added that Tangaraju was represented by legal counsel throughout the court process.

“Despite multiple clarifications we have made previously, we note that Mr Branson continues to make sweeping assertions against Singapore’s approach on drugs, including the use of the death penalty on those who traffic in large amounts of drugs, ” MHA claimed.

Never touched the cannabis

Tangaraju was convicted in 2017 of “abetting by engaging in a conspiracy to traffic” 1,017.9 grams (35.9 ounces) of cannabis, twice the minimum amount that merits the death sentence under the city-state’s tough drug laws.

He was sentenced to death in 2018 and the Court of Appeal has upheld his sentence.

Tangaraju never touched the cannabis he is accused of attempting to traffic. The case against him is largely circumstantial and based on inferences.

It is worth to noted that Tangaraju was tied to the offence by two phone numbers found on the mobile phones of two men arrested by the Central Narcotics Bureau, one of which had been used to coordinate the cannabis delivery.

However, Tangaraju was already in remand for a separate offence by the time he was linked to this case, and his mobile phones were never recovered for analysis.

There was no query as to whether Tangararu  who comes from a poor family and had been going in and out of remand, could even afford to buy the 1kg cannabis and pay someone to traffic the drugs for him.

Aspects of the investigation also raise serious concerns of due process and fairness. As is standard practice in Singapore, Tangaraju was interrogated by the police without being accompanied by legal counsel.

Furthermore, his requests for a Tamil interpreter during the recording of his statement were denied. He said that he had trouble properly understanding the investigating officer’s questions, or the recorded statement when it was read back to him. For the trial, witness statements and phone records were also not disclosed to Tangaraju’s defence.

Tangaraju’s supposed co-conspirator, Mogan Valo, was the one arrested in possession of the cannabis. He pleaded guilty to a non-capital offence of possession for the purposes of trafficking 499.99g of cannabis (just 0.01g below the 500g threshold for the mandatory death penalty for trafficking cannabis).

Others involved in the offence were given discharges not amounting to acquittal.

Tangaraju filed an application at the end of 2022 seeking a review of his case.

Despite his family’s best efforts, they were unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him. Tangaraju was left to self-represent, and his application was dismissed summarily at the beginning of this year.

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