“My heart is crying”: Singapore increases the pace of executions

Kalwant Singh’s death sentence was settled in a Zoom call.

The Malaysian watched from jail as his appeal was discussed virtually by three judges in Singapore this month. For Singh, convicted of smuggling around 120g of heroin, it was his last chance for a reprieve after spending more than six years on death row. He listened in silence as a translator interpreted the discussion.

Although he agreed to provide evidence to the police, Singh’s appeal was denied. He was hanged the next day.

After two years without any hangings, Singapore carried out six executions in 2022, the highest level since 2018, including an intellectually disabled man who was hanged in April. At least seven other prisoners have received execution notices, according to anti-capital punishment activists in the city-state.

“Singapore does not give us time to digest the previous execution. Suddenly the next one is coming,” said Sangkari Pranthaman, whose brother Pannir Selvam is on death row. “Pannir is in the danger zone. . . My heart is crying.”

Kirsten Han, who has campaigned against the death penalty for more than a decade, suspects more execution notices are being issued as there is a lack of space on death row. “It’s definitely been the worst year I’ve seen,” she said.

It could be “very similar to how hospitals free up beds for more patients. They’re cleaning cells for more people than they’re going to put on death row.”

Singapore’s stubborn commitment to capital punishment has exposed regressive policies in one of the world’s most liberal economies, critics have said.

For decades, the affluent city-state has attracted wealthy expats thanks to its reputation for safe streets, rule of law and strong legal protections for business transactions.

But its treatment of foreigners convicted of trafficking even small amounts of drugs exposes a darker side to Singapore, activists said.

The recent revival of the death penalty by the financial hub could also strain the diplomatic and trade relations on which it depends. Last week the EU called for an immediate suspension of the hangings, warning Singapore that it was a “cruel and inhumane” punishment.

“Governments just shouldn’t kill people,” British tycoon Richard Branson told Vice News this year, as he called on Singapore not to execute Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian drug trafficker whose supporters have said he had an IQ of 69.

“Business leaders take these things into consideration. . . If you are in a country that applies the death penalty [and] another that is not death sentence, you have a choice of where you are going to put new offices.

Pannir Selvam, 4, with his siblings

However, multinationals in Singapore still largely avoid the problem. Companies such as Google and Goldman Sachs have come under fire for supporting liberal causes, with the government blocking them from funding the annual gay pride parade in 2016.

Singapore faces little pressure from voters to reverse its position. A 2016 survey by the National University of Singapore found that 87% of residents supported executions for drug trafficking.

In the face of growing criticism this year, Singapore has defended capital punishment as protecting lives, arguing it has a “clear and deterrent effect on drug traffickers”. The Home Office added that the punishment was applied through a “rigorous legal process with strict judicial safeguards” and that the courts concluded that Dharmalingam was not disabled.

The government does not readily release details of who is at risk of execution. Transformative Justice Collective, which supports convicts, said at least 59 people were on death row. Prisoners’ families said inmates slept on the floor in isolated cells and could hear the sounds of others being hanged.

It has been difficult to find lawyers willing to take on execution cases, although activists said four planned executions this year have been put on hold by legal challenges. Many convicts come from impoverished backgrounds, often across the Malaysian border, and struggle to collect court costs.

“No lawyer wants to take on this case anymore,” Nazera Lajim said, days before his brother Nazeri was executed this month for drug trafficking. She said Nazeri, who only had a primary school diploma and became addicted to heroin at age 14, had to file his own appeal in court.

Pranthaman, who travels by bus overnight from Malaysia to see her brother in jail on Saturdays, said she was arrested by police and forced to give a statement after posting a drawing on Facebook of the room where she visits him.

“I’m not interested in going to this country anymore except to visit my brother,” she said. “They claim they are the safest country. [But] you have no freedom at all.

The upsurge in executions, however, has not deterred foreigners from wealthier countries. Far from Changi Prison, expats still crowd the central business district.

“It’s not for me to say [Singapore] how to do their business. . . If people are tried in court as scheduled, then that’s it,” said a recent arrival when asked about the executions. “If you don’t like it, there are other places to call home.”

About Charles D. Goolsby

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