Singapore Court Indefinitely Stays Execution of Disabled Malaysian Man

Iskandar Zulkarnain and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Singapore Court Indefinitely Stays Execution of Disabled Malaysian Man Nagaentharan Dharmalingam holds his nephew in Ipoh, Malaysia, in an undated photograph.
[Third party handout via Reuters]

Singapore’s highest court on Tuesday indefinitely stayed the execution of a convicted Malaysian drug smuggler with an intellectual disability, after he tested positive for COVID-19, his lawyer said, as U.N. human rights experts joined a growing chorus of calls for clemency in the case.

The Court of Appeal was about to begin hearing a last minute appeal from a lawyer representing 33-year-old Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam on Tuesday, a day before his scheduled execution, when it was informed that he was COVID-19 positive, his lawyer M. Ravi said on Facebook.

“The Court of Appeal has ordered an indefinite stay of execution. …Nagaenthran was hit by COVID as the court was about to rise,” Ravi wrote.

The case has shined a spotlight on Singapore’s use of the death penalty and its drug laws, which are among the harshest in the world.

Its Misuse of Drugs Act mandates the death penalty for any individual found smuggling drugs in excess of 15 grams (0.5 ounces) into the country. Nagaenthran was arrested for smuggling in 42.72 grams (1.5 ounces) of heroin.

The city-state executed 35 people from 2014 to 2019, most of them for drug offenses, according to official data.

International outcry

A group of U.N. human rights experts said on Tuesday that under international law, countries that have retained the death penalty may only impose it for the most serious crimes, such as those involving intentional killing.

“Drug-related offenses do not meet this threshold,” they said in a statement.

“Resorting to this type of punishment to prevent drug trafficking is not only illegal under international law, it is also ineffective. There is a lack of any persuasive evidence that the death penalty contributes more than any other punishment to eradicating drug trafficking.”

Rights watchdog Amnesty International’s Singapore researcher, Rachel Chhoa-Howard, on Tuesday echoed the view that the punishment meted out to Nagaentharan was unlawful.

“There is wide evidence of multiple human rights violations including deep concerns about Nagaentharan’s mental capacity and current mental health condition, which would render his execution unlawful, and must be fully assessed,” Chhoa-Howard said in a statement.

Nagaenthran was arrested by Singapore authorities on April 22, 2009 when he was 21. He was sentenced to death on Nov. 22, 2010.

His lawyer appealed the sentence, saying his client had an IQ of 69 – a level said to indicate an intellectual disability. A request for a presidential pardon was rejected on June 1, 2020.

Amnesty’s Chhoa-Howard noted that medical experts who assessed Nagaenthran found that his cognitive deficits may have contributed to “diminished responsibility” for the drug smuggling offense.

“Nagaenthran’s execution must be completely called off, his sentence commuted and these violations addressed,” Chhoa-Howard said.

‘Logic, common sense and humanity’

Nagaenthran, though, has only gained a temporary reprieve.

According to media reports, Tuesday’s court proceedings began at 2:30 p.m. local time, as Nagaenthran was taken to the offenders’ cage in the courtroom to face a panel of three Court of Appeal judges, Andrew Phang Boon Leong, Judith Prakash and Kannan Ramesh.

Nagaenthran was taken away from the courtroom almost as soon as he was brought in, and Phang announced the “unexpected” development that the Malaysian man had contracted COVID-19. The prosecution then asked for further instructions and Phang said it would be inappropriate to continue the hearing.

“Execution of the sentence is scheduled for tomorrow. If the applicant has been infected with COVID-19…we are of the view that execution of the sentence cannot be carried out,” Phang said, according to media reports.

 “I think here, we need to use logic, common sense and humanity.”

Singaporean rights activist Kirsten Han said she was happy Nagaenthran’s execution had been stayed, but she questioned the judge’s reasoning for the stay.

“I’m so relieved about the stay, but the absurdity of capital punishment is the state insisting someone of borderline intellectual functioning and cognitive impairment can be executed, then the moment he tests COVID-positive it’s suddenly about ‘logic, common sense and humanity,’” she said on Twitter.

Nagaenthran’s sister Sarmila said she was relieved, but added that the main worries still remain.

The Malaysian man’s family is also worried that he will be alone after having tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’m only a little bit happy because I know they haven’t stopped the execution, only given it a temporary stay,” Sarmila said in a statement that was tweeted by a Singaporean activist Han.

“I am happy now, but as Nagen’s sister, I need to think about the future.”


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