Malaysia’s top court commutes first death sentences, life terms under amended law

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s top court commutes first death sentences, life terms under amended law A view of the Palace of Justice, where Malaysia’s two highest courts, the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court, are housed in Putrajaya, July 6, 2022.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

In a landmark review on Tuesday, Malaysia’s highest court removed seven convicts from death row and reduced the life sentences of four others, following the country’s abolition in April of mandatory capital punishment for some crimes and other reforms.

All 11 now have to serve 30 years in prison from the date of their arrest, according to the national news agency Bernama.

The cases were the first set to be reviewed since mandatory capital punishment ended for 11 crimes, and life prison sentences were lowered for all crimes. 

One of the convicts who got a reprieve Tuesday was Teh Hock Leong, who had been on death row for the longest time – at 24 years – after his 1999 arrest for a drug offense. After the court commuted his death sentence, it lowered his sentence to 30 years, and then further reduced it to 20 years, for good behavior.

That means, Teh got to walk free Tuesday after the Federal Court’s ruling, his lawyer Guok Ngek Seong told BenarNews.

“Teh is out today as he was given remission under the law for good conduct. The family is grateful he is back home,” said Guok.

Tuesday's review of the 11 convicts’ sentences was conducted after Malaysia’s law minister said that appeals for lesser punishments could begin on Sept. 12, after the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Act came into force on July 4. The mandatory death sentence was removed for 11 offenses including drug trafficking and murder.

A total of 1,020 death-row and life-sentenced inmates were eligible to have their sentences reviewed, Malaysian Law Minister Azalina Othman Said announced on Tuesday. 

Since Nov. 9, the Federal Court had received 871 applications for reviews of death sentences and 117 applications for reviews of life sentences, the minister said. 

Azalina reiterated that the death penalty was retained as a punishment for criminal offenses.

“However, the imposition of the death penalty is no longer mandatory and the amendments to the law have now given judges the liberty to use their discretion to mete out the appropriate punishment,” she said.

Case of ex-PM Najib’s bodyguard 

Tuesday’s review came days after the release from an Australian detention sentence of a former Malaysian policeman, Sirul Azhar Umar, who had fled his country to escape the death sentence in a politically charged murder.

Sirul and his colleague Azilah Hadri were members of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s security detail. They were convicted and sentenced in 2015 for the October 2006 murder of a Mongolian model and interpreter, Altantuya Shaariibuu.

She had been shot dead and her body blown up with military-grade explosives in a remote jungle outside Kuala Lumpur.

Azilah, who is currently on death row, had implicated the now-incarcerated Najib and a defense analyst in the murder, saying in a sworn statement in 2019 that the two had instructed him to kill Altantuya for being a spy.

Sirul fled Malaysia and sought asylum in Australia where he was taken into an immigration detention center and had been held there since January 2015, until his release after a Nov. 6 ruling by an Australian court, local media reported.

Australian law prohibits the deportation of individuals to locations where they could face the death penalty. Since his release, Sirul is staying in Canberra with his son who has lived in Australia for more than a decade, Australian media said.

Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said there was a slim chance to repatriate Sirul if he applied for a review to change his death penalty to life in prison and if that application was approved.

“[S]irul has the right to apply for review [of his sentence] through his lawyer. Only after all the processes have been completed can we apply for an extradition process,” he said during a press conference on Tuesday. 

BenarNews reached out several times to Sirul’s lawyer, William Levingston, and the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney, where the former policeman had spent nine years, but didn’t hear back.


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