Stop the killing of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam

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Published on 8 November 2021

If Singaporean courts get their way, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, an intellectually disabled 33-year-old man from Malaysia, will be led to the gallows at Changi Prison on Wednesday, to be hanged for entering the country with 42 grams of heroin, an offence that carries a mandatory sentence of death under Singapore’s strict penal code. I join many others concerned about this tragic case in calling on Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob to use her pardon powers and spare Nagaenthran’s life. It would be the just and fair thing to do.

Coerced and threatened by drug traffickers exploiting his poverty, Nagaenthran was just 19 when he was arrested in 2019. His ordeal exposes the fatal flaws of the death penalty on so many levels.

Nagaenthran Dharmalingam

To begin, there is the issue of Nagaenthran’s well-documented intellectual disability. He has an IQ of 69 and several psychiatric experts have diagnosed him with a range of mental impairments. Many human rights advocates have highlighted the incompatibility of his death sentence with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, to which Singapore is a signatory. Proceeding with the execution of a man who may not have fully understood the consequences of his actions, nor his rights in court, would cast serious doubts on Singapore’s willingness to uphold international law, undoubtedly a setback for a country that prides itself with its commitment to the rule of law. 

Secondly, in many Asian countries, death sentences are imposed for non-violent drug offences, as part of a hard-fought “war on drugs” based on the idea that a zero-tolerance approach with harsh consequences will have a deterrent effect on both supply and demand of illicit drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

South-East Asian governments following this course of action have yet to provide any compelling evidence that draconian drug laws have noticeable impact on the illicit drug trade. Year after year, people face the gallows, the firing squad, or – in Duterte’s Philippines – unaccountable death squads for alleged drug-related crimes. Yet, the global drug trade continues to grow, and illicit drugs of all types are more readily available around the world than at any other point in history. If deterrence is the objective, these laws have failed miserably. And they will continue to fail. What countries really need is comprehensive drug policy reform that focuses on harm reduction and public health, not on crime and punishment.

Equally troubling are the aspects of inequality evident in this case. Few kingpins of the illicit drug trade, many of them operating out of Asian countries, ever face any consequences for their role in this multi-billion-dollar business. It’s the couriers, the foot soldiers, that bear the brunt of prosecution and its often fatal consequences. “If you don’t have the capital, you get the punishment,” the adage goes in the US. The Southeast Asian version of this story is no different. It’s almost always the most vulnerable people, people struggling to make ends meet, immigrants in need of money, that are roped into criminal schemes, unable to defend themselves when caught and facing the court. In Nagaenthran’s case, some have suggested that he himself may have been the victim of human trafficking. Either way, as a small cog in the wheel, he didn’t stand to gain much from his offence; the big profits are made elsewhere. In this sense, his case mirrors that of Hairun Jalmani in Malaysia, a 55-year-old single mother of nine who was handed a death sentence for possession of 114 grams of methamphetamine just a few weeks ago. It’s impossible not to see the extent to which inequality, poverty and the death penalty are linked. It’s a grave injustice. 

I’ve never made a secret of my position on capital punishment. It’s an inhumane practice that deserves no place in modern society. But no matter where you stand, it’s cases like Nagaenthran’s that illustrate why the death penalty is broken beyond repair. Madame President, please spare his life and let’s work together to end executions for good.