Singapore faces criticism for use of death penalty and allegations about prisoner treatment

Rebecca RootMonday 26 June 2023

In April, 46-year-old Tangaraju Suppiah was executed by the Singaporean authorities after being found guilty of conspiring to smuggle cannabis. In 2022, all 11 people executed in Singapore had also been convicted of drug-related charges. However, the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) says that drug-related crimes don’t ‘meet the threshold of “the most serious crimes” for which death sentences may be imposed under Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’.

In August 2022, the IBAHRI condemned the rise in executions in Singapore and urged the country to move towards abolishing the death penalty. Singapore’s Ministry of Law and its Ministry of Home Affairs, however, jointly stated last autumn that ‘there is no international consensus against the use of capital punishment when it is imposed according to the due process of law and with judicial safeguards’. A spokesperson for the two ministries told Global Insight that the death penalty is an ‘effective deterrent’ when it comes to the ‘most serious crimes’, including the trafficking of significant quantities of drugs as well as crimes such as murder.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was among those to request that the execution of Suppiah be abandoned, highlighting that ‘imposing the death penalty for drug offences is incompatible with international norms and standards’ and noting its concerns around due process and respect for fair trial guarantees in relation to the allegations against Suppiah. Amnesty International suggested that Suppiah didn’t have access to a lawyer or a Tamil interpreter during his interrogation by the police.

In 2022, Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national with psychosocial disabilities, was also executed in Singapore. Prior to his death, members of the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council raised concerns that Dharmalingam had not been provided with the necessary procedural accommodations for his disabilities during interrogation.

‘The current situation as it comes to access to counsel, fair trial rights and the inability of capital defence lawyers to practice because of the types of intimidation and harassment they face is a huge access to justice and rule of law issue’, says Preetha Gopalan, Joint Head of UK Litigation and Project Lead – Death Penalty (South East Asia) at the non-governmental organisation Reprieve. ‘What we’ve seen in the last year is a significant number of individuals having to self-represent from prison via Zoom, sometimes in cases where their lives are hanging in the balance. To say that this is a system that has access to fair trials and due process, it’s just completely not in line with the facts on the ground.’

Society punishes convicted criminals by taking away their freedom; that is the punishment and not ill treatment in prison

Justice Richard J Goldstone
Honorary President, IBA’s Human Rights Institute Council

The ministries’ spokesperson told Global Insight that it offers free legal representation to those facing capital offences for the duration of the trial and appeal. The Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore has stated that allegations that Suppiah lacked a lawyer or interpreter during his interrogation were raised only during his cross-examination and that the judge found them to be ‘disingenuous’. The ministries didn’t comment specifically on the allegation about prisoners’ reliance on Zoom.

According to Gopalan, it’s ‘the most vulnerable people in society populating Singapore's death row’ – people with intellectual disabilities, addiction problems, people who come from poverty and ‘a disproportionate representation of foreign nationals, so primarily Malaysian nationals, as well as […] ethnic minority Singaporeans’.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has denied suggestions that capital punishment is used disproportionately against minorities in Singapore. It has previously stated that ‘Ethnicity and socio-economic status play no part in the professional discharge of duties’ by Singapore’s authorities.

The rise in executions in Singapore comes amid claims that those incarcerated in its prison system are denied certain rights. In Singapore, ‘there is still a lack of fundamental respect for basic rights of prisoners’ in comparison to other jurisdictions’, explains Rocky Howe, an anti-death penalty activist with the Transformative Justice Collective. For example, it’s seen as a privilege for prisoners to be able to receive visitors, rather than a right, Howe explains.

AW, a Singaporean resident who was previously arrested and has asked for anonymity, described conditions in prison facilities as ‘spartan’, with hygiene conditions being less than ideal. For death row prisoners, Howe says, imposed isolation and ‘yard time’ that’s confined to the indoors aren’t unusual. The UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners states that efforts should be made to avoid solitary confinement and that all prisoners must be treated with respect.

The spokesperson for the ministries argued however that all essential needs of inmates are being met. Prisons are ‘strict and austere’ for security purposes, and they are clean and not overcrowded, said the spokesperson.

‘Society punishes convicted criminals by taking away their freedom; that is the punishment and not ill treatment in prison’, says Justice Richard J Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute Council. ‘It is important therefore that prisoners should have free and ready access to legal representation to ensure that their fundamental human rights are respected […] It goes without saying that in the case of capital punishment, the fundamental right to adequate legal representation is all the more crucial.’

News coverage and calls to investigate prison conditions have contributed to what Howe calls a ‘growing public awareness’ of the problems. He explains that the treatment of prisoners hasn’t historically been widely discussed given the levels of media censorship in the country. According to research by the National University of Singapore, published in 2018, the majority of locals support capital punishment ‘in general’. But things may be changing; over 400 people took to the streets in early April to speak out against capital punishment.

Howe hopes that abolition of the death penalty will one day be a reality, but believes this is likely far off. Meanwhile, Gopalan says we’re seeing Singapore’s government dig its heels in, ‘through all of these various measures in the law, in practice, as well as in public statements. But that doesn't mean that we as the international community should not be continuing to speak out and to highlight the issues in the system and more importantly, to support the activists and lawyers domestically in what ways we can.’

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