Singapore has executed a man for conspiring to traffic marijuana, its first use of capital punishment for six months, despite pleas for clemency from his family and anti-death penalty activists.
Singaporean national Tangaraju Suppiah, 46, was sentenced to death in 2018 for abetting the attempted trafficking of more than a kilogram of the drug, after a judge found that he was using a phone number that had communicated with traffickers who were attempting to smuggle the drugs into the city-state.
Singapore has a long history of executing drug offenders, in line with mandatory sentencing laws that prescribe the death penalty once the quantity of drugs surpasses a certain threshold, removing the discretion of judges to impose a lesser sentence. The city-state executed 11 people last year for drug offenses, following a two-year halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many previous cases, such as that of Malaysian national Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was believed to be intellectually disabled, Tangaraju’s execution proceeded despite last-ditch appeals for clemency from his family, who claimed that he was not provided with adequate legal counsel. They also say that he was denied access to a Tamil interpreter while he was being questioned by the police.
Anti-death penalty campaigners say that the case encapsulates Singapore’s ardent use of capital punishment, which is often imposed despite flimsy or circumstantial evidence. This punishment also falls overwhelmingly on the lower rungs of the drug trafficking networks, and thus does little effectively to stem the flow of drugs across Singapore’s borders.
In a scathing statement today, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch described the case as “outrageous and unacceptable” and said that the evidence against Tangaraju was “far from clear cut – since he never actually touched the marijuana in question, was questioned by police without a lawyer, and denied access to a Tamil interpreter when he asked for one.”
This led to calls from the United Nations for Singapore to “urgently reconsider” his hanging. The British tycoon Richard Branson, a prominent global death penalty campaigner, also urged the authorities to halt the hanging.
“No matter where one stands on the death penalty, if a criminal justice system cannot safeguard and protect those at risk of execution despite credible claims of innocence, the system is broken beyond repair,” Branson said in an April 24 statement.
As Branson pointed out, Singapore’s use of the death penalty in a cannabis case runs counter to recent trends in neighboring countries. Last year, Thailand became the latest of a growing number of countries worldwide that are moving to decriminalize marijuana, while Malaysia’s parliament recently passed a bill abolishing the mandatory use of the death penalty. Under the new Malaysian guidelines, a Singaporean judge would have had the discretion of imposing a sentence that matches the alleged crime.
Singapore’s government was more intent on demonstrating that it is “tough on drugs” than on ensuring that due process was followed, Robertson wrote. The execution “raises serious concerns that Singapore is launching a renewed spree to empty its death row in a misguided deterrence effort that actually reveals more about Singapore’s barbarity than anything else,” he said.
“Singapore’s leaders like to claim that their country is more modern and developed than Malaysia,” Robertson added, “but in the case of criminal justice and the death penalty, Singapore clearly lags behind.”
Such criticisms are unlikely to dent the confidence or self-assuredness of the ruling People’s Action Party, which seem almost to relish its defiance of international outrage. Indeed, they will simply reinforce the PAP’s longstanding narrative that it always acts rationally in the Singaporean interest. As the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote in a statement that it issued in response to Branson’s criticisms, “Our approach has worked for us, and we will continue charting our own path according to what is in the best interests of Singaporeans.”
By playing to the defensive nationalistic reflexes of Singaporeans, the government will likely succeed in convincing them that it is helping to keep the country safe, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.