To Members of the Cabinet,
We call on you to halt all executions, and immediately direct an official moratorium on the death penalty in Singapore. As of 5 July 2022, there are at least 63 individuals on death row, most of whom have exhausted all legal recourse available to them. The overwhelming majority of them have been placed on death row after being convicted of drug trafficking, and were given the mandatory death penalty.
We are deeply distressed that executions have resumed in 2022, after a two-year pause, and we seek to safeguard the lives of the many people on death row who now face imminent execution.
The stories of so many of these individuals involve poverty, dependence on drugs and destitution. Living on the margins of society, many of them turned to drug use as a way to cope with their struggles. Most eventually participated in the drug trade as a way to sustain their drug use or alleviate other financial burdens like debts.
Much like Abdul Kahar bin Othman, who was executed in March 2022 at the age of 68, Nazeri bin Lajim has struggled with substance use since he was 14 years old, without access to adequate treatment and care. He had spent three quarters of his life trapped in the revolving door of prison - a cycle of incarceration, release and re-arrest - before being arrested in 2012 on capital charges. Nazeri, who is also in his sixties, could be up for execution anytime.
Yet others transport drugs to earn money to help with desperate family circumstances. Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who was executed in April 2022, came from an impoverished, working class family and had agreed to courier drugs after asking for a loan of RM500 for his father’s heart operation. He was also found to have low IQ, like several others still on death row. The lived experiences of many individuals on death row mirror that of Nazeri and Nagaenthran - they are vulnerable, turn to transporting drugs because they are in desperate circumstances and have few other options for survival.
It is abhorrent that the state plans to murder these individuals instead of putting an end to the systemic injustices that have plagued their lives and brought them into conflict with the law.
We need to fundamentally re-evaluate our approach to drugs in our country, committing to an evidence-based approach grounded in public health perspectives and harm reduction. If we want to deter people from participating in the drug trade, we should ensure that there is affordable and high-quality healthcare and housing, decent jobs with living wages, strong labour protections, and free, accessible and voluntary community-based rehabilitation programmes that do not treat their participants as criminals.
We worry that many of the ways in which the system of death penalty in Singapore decides who lives and who dies is deeply problematic, and stacked against people who have lower education levels, less financial means and are in other ways disadvantaged. Once someone is charged with a capital offence, the factors that determine whether they are convicted, sentenced to death and ultimately executed are often determined by pure chance and luck. How can we take people’s lives away in such an arbitrary manner?
The death penalty is irreversible. The fact that accused persons in Singapore have so many fundamental rights stripped from them leads to higher chances of wrongful convictions. This means completely innocent people may be executed. The close calls we have had in several cases also point to this risk.
Gobi Avedian, who was on death row, filed a late-stage application and in 2020, the Court found that it was not right to uphold his death sentence. Today, Gobi lives, and will be back home with his family in a few years. There have been others who, after living on death row for many years, have been completely acquitted or had their sentence lessened, only because they continued to advocate for themselves and a lawyer decided to fight for them.
It has also become increasingly difficult for individuals on death row to find lawyers who dare to represent them at later stages. This is because lawyers who take on such cases risk suspension, face personal costs and other kinds of punishment, which only seem set to intensify in the coming months and years.
In April 2022, Datchinamurthy a/l Kataiah, a death row prisoner, was given a notice of execution despite having a civil case that was pending before the courts. As no lawyer in Singapore would represent him to seek a stay of execution, he had to seek the assistance of his family to draft his own legal documents and argue for the stay on his own, before the High Court, as well as the Court of Appeal.
In the absence of lawyers willing to take up cases at a late stage, it falls to the clemency process to ensure that no individual has their life taken away by the state. There has been no successful clemency application under the current government. The last successful application was as far back as 1998. This raises questions about the value of the clemency process and whether this system is functioning. Without a real hope of clemency, people on death row and their families are further pushed to helplessness.
We have seen that public sentiment is turning against the use of the death penalty in Singapore. Since October 2021, more than a hundred thousand Singaporeans have signed various petitions and statements calling for the halting of executions and the abolition of the death penalty. In the months since, two separate protests at Hong Lim Park each saw almost 500 Singapore residents demanding an end to state killing. Hundreds of clemency appeals by Singaporeans have also been ignored by the President and the Prime Minister.
Most countries in the world have abolished the death penalty or have imposed moratoriums on its use, because they recognise that it is a cruel, inhumane and ineffective punishment. Many countries are also moving towards decriminalising drugs and introducing evidence-based, harm reduction approaches to understanding and managing drug use. Research shows that the countries that are the safest in the world do not retain the death penalty. But here in Singapore, the government continues to baselessly assert that the death penalty is a deterrent against drugs and murder.
The death penalty has no place in a caring and just society, which many Singaporeans desire. We do not accept the murder of our fellow people in our name, and firmly believe it is high time that we take steps towards abolition.