Malaysia says yes to ending mandatory death sentence

Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia says yes to ending mandatory death sentence Activists protest against the execution of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a mentally disabled Malaysian man sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore in 2009, outside the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, April 23, 2022.

Malaysian judges will no longer be compelled to issue mandatory death sentences for people convicted of 12 types of serious crime, including drug-related offenses, under proposed legal amendments that the government announced Friday.

Malaysia’s cabinet agreed to end the mandatory death penalty, the law minister announced, four years after the government imposed a stay on executions in a country where most of the people on death row have been condemned for narcotics offenses, according to human rights groups.

It was not immediately clear when the legislative changes would take effect.

“We have to understand that the death penalty is not abolished and will remain, it’s just that it will no longer be mandatory,” Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told state news agency Bernama.

The announcement came a little more than a month after neighboring Singapore executed a Malaysian, who was said to be mentally disabled, for smuggling 1.5 ounces of heroin.

The prime minister explained that not all defendants deserve the harshest sentence. 

“We are of the view that everyone deserves a second chance. If there are two options (of sentences), and if the offender is found to be a hardcore drug trafficker to the extent of causing hundreds of thousands of people to die (due to drugs), he can be sentenced to death and allowed to be sent to the gallows,” Ismail Sabri said.

“Sometimes, the case involved an 18-year-old. The judge may find him ‘trapped’ as drugs were found in his bag but he could not prove that they belonged to somebody else, and the court had to send him to the gallows even though the judge felt that the accused was a young man who should be given a second chance to change.”

Earlier in the day, Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said in a statement that the decision was made during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, after he presented a report on alternative sentences that could replace the death penalty at a judge’s discretion.

He said the cabinet ministers agreed to study alternatives for the 11 offenses that carry death mandatory sentences and one offense under the Dangerous Drugs Act for trafficking. Among the 11 offenses are kidnapping, murder and causing death through an act of terrorism to name a few.

Another 22 offenses allow a judge’s discretion involving the death penalty. 

“This result shows the government’s priority is to ensure that the rights of all parties are protected and guaranteed, thus reflecting the transparency of the country’s leadership in improving the country’s dynamic criminal justice system,” the law minister’s statement said.

According to a reply in parliament in February 2022, 1,341 people were on death row, with 905 of the cases involving mandatory death sentences for drug trafficking, according to Amnesty International Malaysia.

Rights groups’ support

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, applauded the apparent end of the mandatory death penalty.

“Malaysia’s public pronouncement that it will do away with the mandatory death penalty is an important step forward, especially when one considers how trends on capital punishment are headed in precisely the opposite direction in neighboring countries like Singapore, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

“But before everyone starts cheering, we need to see Malaysia pass the actual legislative amendments to put this pledge into effect because we have been down this road before, with successive Malaysian governments promising much on human rights but ultimately delivering very little,” Robertson said in a statement. 

In 2018, the progressive Pakatan Harapan government said it would begin efforts to end the death penalty, but backtracked in 2019.

“The Malaysian government loves to float trial balloons about human rights initiatives because it knows the international community has a short attention span and will take this as a sign of Malaysia progressing forward. But the reality is often more complicated, so we’ve learned to be wary,” Robertson said.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, called the government’s decision a “welcome step in the right direction.”

Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, AI’s executive director in Malaysia, urged officials to introduce the proposed amendments in parliament without delay.

“We have seen and documented time and time again how the use of mandatory sentencing has disproportionately harmed the most marginalized and disenfranchised members of society, how the death penalty itself has not served as a unique deterrent to crime, and how its continued use has stifled the necessary and visionary work towards enabling fair justice and addressing issues at the root causes,” she said.

Maliamauv described the death penalty as a violation of the right to life.

“But today’s announcement by the government shows that human rights change is possible and that the global trend toward abolition remains unstoppable. Malaysia’s decision should also set an example for other countries in the region,” she said.

The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network also welcomed the announcement.

“The mandatory death penalty regime does not provide justice as it deprives judges of the discretion to sentence based on the situation of each individual offender,” it said in a statement.


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