Singapore, which imposes the death penalty for serious crimes including murder and drug trafficking, said it plans to exempt more cases from the mandatory sentence.
While the nation will uphold the death penalty for those who manufacture and traffic drugs, the punishment will no longer be mandatory for all those caught carrying drugs exceeding certain amounts, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in parliament today. Courts will have the discretion to either sentence the offender to death or life imprisonment with caning if the accused is only a courier and has cooperated with authorities or has a mental disability, he said.
“These provisions retain the strong deterrence posture of our capital punishment regime while providing for a more calibrated sentencing framework when specific conditions are met,” Teo said. The proposed changes will provide a framework for accused persons to assist the state in targeting those who play “a more significant role in drug syndicates,” he said.
Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes. Still, the city state has been criticized by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International for maintaining the death penalty even as more than two-thirds of countries worldwide have abolished it in law or in practice.
The death penalty will still apply for “intentional” murders, while courts will have the discretion to impose life imprisonment in less severe crimes, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said. The seriousness of the crime, personal culpability and deterrence will be considered, he said.
Intentional killing is still considered “one of the most serious offenses,” and the state reserves the right to punish offenders with the most severe penalty, Shanmugam said. When the crime isn’t intentional, the courts will have the discretion to impose either the death penalty or life imprisonment.
“Justice can be tempered with mercy and where appropriate, offenders should be given a second chance,” he said. “The approach being taken is not without risks, but it is a step we can take.”
Draft legislation outlining the changes will be proposed later this year, Shanmugam said.
The proposal is an important first step toward consistency with universal standards of human rights, Braema Mathi, president of Singapore-based human rights organization Maruah, said in a statement today. The mandatory death penalty is “fundamentally troubling, and it continues to be applied to a substantial number of criminal offences,” Mathi said.
In a 2004 statement, the ministry of home affairs said the country executed 110 people for drugs-related offenses and 28 for murder and arms-related offenses over five years.
There are currently 35 prisoners awaiting capital punishment, 28 for drug offenses and seven for murder, Teo said.
“There will be an appropriate process where they will be given the opportunity to be considered whether or not the new sentencing regime can be applied to them,” he said.
There has been a “progressive reduction in the use of the death penalty in Singapore,” Amnesty International said in a statement in May.
Recent cases that have put the death penalty in the spotlight include Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian who was sentenced with execution for smuggling 47 grams (1.7 ounces) of heroin to Singapore, and last year lost a bid at the city’s highest court for a presidential review of his sentence. An online petition appealing for clemency garnered more than 41,000 signatures.
In 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dismissed Australia’s calls to commute the death sentence for Australian drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van.
A book on the city’s death penalty resulted in a contempt of court charge for British author Alan Shadrake. His book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock,” suggests that the government “succumbs to political and economic pressures” in meting out the death penalty, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said in court papers. Shadrake was convicted and sentenced to jail.