The Families' Petition

Overview

Over 400 family members and loved ones of people on death row have signed a petition calling for a moratorium on executions pending an independent review of the death penalty.

The original intent was for this petition to be presented in Parliament so that its demands can be debated in the House. So far, no Member of Parliament that has been approached has agreed to carry the petition into Parliament on the families' behalf.

These are the demands we are outlining:


a) To pass into law a moratorium on the death penalty pending the commission, by the government, of an independent and transparent review of the use of capital punishment in Singapore and its effects.


b) The review should examine the risks that the current death penalty regime exposes accused persons to, of being denied adequate representation and being subject to unsafe trials; and being wrongfully convicted, sentenced and executed.


c) The review should examine whether the system of executive clemency provides real avenues for people on death row to seek and be granted pardons, the criteria on which clemency petitions are accepted or rejected, and why no clemencies have been granted to death row prisoners since 1998.


d) The review should study why it is disproportionately ethnic minorities from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who are on death row in Singapore. It should also be attentive to their life trajectories and the ways in which earlier, non-coercive interventions could have supported these individuals and kept them free from conflict with the law.


e) The review should assess the ripple effects of harm and trauma that capital punishment brings to different segments of Singapore society, including death row prisoners, other incarcerated people, families of death row prisoners, their communities, and to wider society.


f) This independent review should also use evidence-based approaches to compare the use of the death penalty with alternative approaches to managing and addressing the specific types of concerns that the death penalty is currently claimed to be protecting us from, such as harmful, rampant drug use, and murder.


Read the Petition

In this petition, we call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty (i.e. a halt in all executions), so that an independent and transparent review of the use of capital punishment in Singapore and its effects can be undertaken.


We are the family members and loved ones of people on death row. We are very concerned about how executions have resumed in the past few months, after two years without executions, and how there seems to be an acceleration in the pace of executions being scheduled. There are serious concerns regarding the use of the death penalty in Singapore, and a growing number of Singaporeans are calling for its abolition. We therefore call for executions to be halted immediately.


Many of us come from underprivileged backgrounds and grew up in poverty. Our loved ones have led difficult, troubled lives — often burdened by debt and going in and out of prison for a large portion of their lives. The difficult and desperate circumstances they faced led them to get in trouble with the law. A significant number of people on death row have also been found to have low IQ, and may have intellectual disabilities. Singapore’s brutal death penalty regime takes people who were already in distress and subjects them to far more cruelty. As long as the death penalty exists in Singapore, our society will not pay attention to understanding and addressing the root causes that lead to people ending up on death row. This is an important reason why the death penalty has got to go.


Most people on death row today are there because they transported or sold drugs. The government often paints a narrative where one is either a predatory drug trafficker or an unfortunate victim of drugs. But many of our loved ones on death row have struggled with trauma and dependence on substances. They are victims of a senseless and ineffective drug regime that has refused to understand substance use or support people who use drugs with interventions that will actually help them. Harsh punishments like long years of incarceration, caning, tagging often made it even more difficult for them to lead functional lives, pushing them further into drug dependence. The right social support, healthcare, and access to decent jobs with a living wage would have prevented their participation in illegal work.


Evidence must speak louder than assumptions, but there is little evidence that the death penalty works to deter crime. The murder rates in countries like Canada and Australia dropped after the abolition of the death penalty. The death penalty does not deter the people who exploit the vulnerability and desperation of our loved ones. No one on death row today are kingpins or leaders of drug syndicates. Killing our loved ones will not stop them from bringing in drugs, as long as there is a steady supply of vulnerable people they can make use of.


A death sentence, once carried out, cannot be reversed; the person will be gone forever. This should deeply concern all of us, because we cannot guarantee that there will never be wrongful convictions. For example, Gobi Avedian was re-sentenced to 15 years in prison after he had already been scheduled for execution, only because of late-stage applications taken out by lawyers. Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi and, most recently, Raj Kumar Aiyachami were both acquitted of all charges after living on death row. These cases have shown that wrongful convictions can happen in our legal system, which might lead to wrongful executions.


When our loved ones are investigated, statements are taken from them by the police without a lawyer present. The Misuse of Drugs Act also contains presumptions that assume that, if someone was found to be carrying above a certain amount of drugs, they must have it in their possession for the purpose of trafficking, and must have known what they were carrying. This places the burden of proof on the accused person. The ‘abnormality of mind’ exemption clause, which allows the court not to sentence someone to death, is also vague and unscientific. A person can also be convicted almost solely on the testimony of a co-accused. These are just some of the ways in which death penalty cases are conducted that increase the risk of people being wrongfully convicted.


Recent incidents have also shown that there is a worrying lack of respect for the right to fair trial for people facing capital charges. In 2020, it was revealed that the Singapore Prison Service had forwarded the correspondence of 13 death row inmates to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (i.e. the prosecution). This included correspondence between the inmates and their lawyers that should have been confidential. In 2022, it was found that the Prisons and AGC had sought privileged information about a death row inmate’s legal application even before it had been filed, before deciding whether to grant the request of the inmate’s lawyer to interview another death row inmate for the application. The State Counsel who communicated with the lawyer about the interview request later represented the AGC in the application. Knowing that such things have happened, how are we, as family members, to believe that our loved ones have been given every opportunity to mount the fullest defence?


We are concerned about the climate of fear that affects the willingness of lawyers to take on death penalty cases at later stages. This affects the right to adequate representation for people on death row. We have seen and experienced first-hand the increasing difficulty in finding lawyers for our loved ones. Many reject taking on cases without even considering them on their merits. No lawyer stepped forward to represent Datchinamurthy a/l Kataiah, when he was scheduled for execution on 29 April 2022, despite him having a significant ongoing civil proceeding against the AGC. The day before his scheduled execution, Datchinamurthy had to represent himself in front of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal to win a stay of execution.


The death penalty imposes unbearable pain and suffering for those on death row, and us as their family and loved ones. The Prison Regulations explicitly state that those on death row must be confined apart from all other prisoners. Our loved ones spend 23 hours in a cell alone, with little to no contact with others, while contemplating their death. Even during yard time, where they are rostered in twos, they remain separated from one another and are prevented from seeing each other. Why should they be punished in so many additional ways?


Unlike other prisoners, those on death row cannot send or receive e-letters. They also face difficulty receiving physical letters, including from immediate family members, or children’s drawings. Approval for visits for non-immediate family members and friends remains at the discretion of the prison authorities, and it is often difficult to understand the criteria or reasoning behind the decisions made. They also aren’t allowed to speak to journalists or activists who are helping them with their cases. Why? These denials of their right to human connection and the right to have a voice makes the death penalty even more unjust.


Our loved ones on death row face hostile prison conditions. Some have told us about verbal abuse and provocations they face from prison officers. If they respond to such provocations, they risk further punishment and worse treatment in prison. There are limited to no options to lodge complaints and address such issues — some of our loved ones have not been able to meet a Visiting Justice in years, even if they have asked to talk to them. Some of them even tell us that if they have been more vocal about advocating for themselves and fellow prisoners, the prison system makes it a point to deny them the opportunity to speak to Visiting Justices.


When we advocate publicly for our loved ones on death row, or speak up against the death penalty, we do so with the very real fear that they will suffer for it in prison. Some of us have experienced that, when we participate in public campaigns against the death penalty, our loved ones are intimidated in prison, and have what little comforts they were previously given — like books, ice cubes or medicine — taken away.


All of us have appealed for clemency for our loved ones. Our clemency appeals have all been dismissed via cold, short responses from the President’s office. The hundreds of letters sent to the Istana begging the President for clemency for Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam and Datchinamurthy Kataiah were met with silence. No clemency has been granted by the Singaporean government since 1998, and it raises concerns as to whether the Cabinet and President have properly considered our applications. Little is known about what the criteria is, and if the system of executive clemency is a meaningful option for those for whom mercy is the final and only hope.


There are currently alternate sentencing options available for the offences of carrying drugs and for murder, which are the two categories of offences for which people have been sentenced to death in Singapore in recent times. We see people who murder or traffick in drugs who don’t receive the death penalty, while our loved ones do. Sometimes, the person who supplied drugs to our loved ones received a life sentence, while our family member received the death penalty.


We believe it is impossible to have a system that meaningfully distinguishes when the level of harm caused by someone justifies the death penalty. To make things worse, public prosecutors have the power to deicde who faces the death penalty through (A) choosing whether or not to charge them under an offence that carries the death penalty and (B) whether to issue a Certificate of Cooperation, in drug trafficking cases, and (C) whether to ask for the death penalty or a lower sentence.


We cannot, as a society, hide behind the death penalty in order to avoid addressing the systemic issues of marginalisation or socio-economic disadvantage. Nor should we disguise vengeance as justice.


There is precedent for a moratorium on capital punishment in Singapore. A decade ago, we had a moratorium pending the review of the statutory framework of capital punishment. Ten years on, it is now time again to fundamentally rethink the use of the death penalty. We call on the Parliament of Singapore to pass into law an official moratorium, in order to facilitate a comprehensive review of the use of the death penalty for all the offences to which it currently applies.