Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Heroin Smuggler Challenges Singapore Mandatory Death Sentence
Lawyers for a young Malaysian man facing the death penalty for drug smuggling are arguing that the mandatory death sentence is inhumane and disproportionate.
Singapore executes anyone found guilty of importing more than 15 grams of drugs.
It is one of the few countries in the world to impose compulsory death sentences for drug offences.
As Monica Kotwani reports from Singapore, it is being seen as a key challenge against the longstanding law.
Ah Leong takes a rare break from working in the kitchen at the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district.
He wrings his hands anxiously. His brother Vui Kong is on death row.
Ah Leong says they have had a tough life.
“My parents split up when he was just three. My father left us and my mum had to support us.”
Ah Leong says seeing his mum struggle to survive caused his brother to be attracted by the prospects of riches in the capital. There he was lured into drug trafficking.
“We’re from Sabah, and very poor. You work so hard but you earn very little. But in Kuala Lumpur, Vui Kong’s boss called him to work, and paid him well. He was told by his boss to take these things and give them to people. He could not say no to his boss’s demands.”
Vui Kong was 19 years old when he was arrested in Singapore for possessing 47 grams of heroin, more than twice the maximum amount that warrants the mandatory death penalty.
He was later convicted of trafficking drugs, and sentenced to death.
But in December last year, a few days before Vui Kong was due to be hanged his lawyers obtained an emergency reprieve.
M Ravi is his appeal lawyer.
“When we say mandatory death sentence means basically judges don’t have discretion. Just close your eyes, and that’s it, and execute. Don’t have to look at the person’s background and all that. You know in a sentencing regime, there’s a plea in mitigation, to mitigate your circumstances, it’s part of the sentencing process, so, it was not only that the death penalty was already harsh, but to impose that, it’s just cruel and unusual punishment.”
Taiwan recently abolished the mandatory death penalty and China, which continues to execute prisoners, allows judicial discretion in sentencing drug-related cases.
Ravi says Singapore is out of touch.
“It is a very outdated, outmoded approach. It is not compatible with evolving standards of human rights decency. 95 percent of Asian countries have abolished it.”
Singapore has seen a big decline in its use of the death penalty but the government is resisting any change to the law.
In 2009, Law Minister K Shanmugam cited a survey conducted by Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, which found that 95 percent of Singaporeans support the death penalty.
But Andrew Loh editor of the Online Citizen website believes this is not an accurate picture.
“There’s a difference between the death penalty and the mandatory death penalty. From my experience, from talking to people, explaining to them what it is, most of the people, when they understand it more, they do not support the mandatory death penalty.”
Andrew says there have been some high profile execution cases in the last few years that involved the Australian and Nigerian governments but, he says, so far the Singaporean government has not relented to international pressure.
“Whenever such cases come out, the government turns the whole issue around to become about national sovereignty - that we have the right to impose our own set of laws. I don’t know why they do that. Maybe to get the general public to support the government, because if you turn it to a national pride kind of issue, people will feel these other countries are attacking us so we have to defend the government.”
I’m standing outside the Supreme Court of Singapore, where Yong Vui Kong’s appeal is being heard.
In the hearing, Singapore’s Attorney General, Walter Woon is arguing that the Mandatory Death Penalty deters others from doing the same.
Asia Calling requested an interview with the Attorney General many times but I was informed by a staff member that he was on a very long leave. An email request for an interview with the Ministry of Home Affairs was denied.
Defence Lawyer Ravi says research in Hong Kong has shown that the death penalty does not reduce crime.
“The fact that it does not deter has been researched by Jeffrey Fagan. Jeffrey Fagan did a study between HK and Singapore - a tale of two cities, that’s the title of his research. After the abolition of capital punishment in HK, there was a reduction in terms of homicide as well as drug trafficking in Hong Kong.”
Back outside the Marriot Hotel Ah Leong has nearly finished his break.
He says he just wants his little brother to live.
“I hope for anything but the death penalty. Anything else is ok. In prison, he can learn, to cook, or read. Twenty or thirty years, it doesn’t matter. It’s still a chance for him, because he’s still such a young boy.”
Ah Leong’s mother suffers from depression and he fears she will not survive if Vui Kong is hanged.
So the family has decided to keep her in the dark.
“As long as she lives, we will never tell our mother. We’ll just tell her that he has been caught, and is in prison. I think this is for the best.”
at 4:14 PM