Outcry as Singapore executes man with learning difficulties over drugs offence

Campaigners decry ‘broken system’ in Singapore that disproportionately punishes drug mules rather than those who coerce them into work

A man with learning difficulties has been executed in Singapore for attempting to smuggle a small amount of heroin, despite repeated pleas for his life to be spared, in a case campaigners have described as a “tragic miscarriage of justice”.

Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national, was arrested in 2009, aged 21, for attempting to carry 43g of heroin – about three tablespoons – into Singapore. He was sentenced to death the following year, and then spent more than a decade on death row.

His sentence horrified international rights groups, and prompted an outcry around the world, from EU representatives and UN experts, to the billionaire Richard Branson and actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry. Within Singapore, where support for the death penalty is high, the handling of his case has also prompted some to question the city state’s approach to drugs-related crimes.

Nagaenthran had said he was coerced into carrying the package and did not know what was inside. His supporters say Nagaenthran had an IQ of 69, a level recognised as indicating a learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but that neither the investigation nor trial made any specific disability-related accommodations.

Singapore’s chief justice, Sundaresh Menon, has previously stated that Nagaenthran had been “afforded due process”. Singapore’s government claims its severe drugs laws, including the death penalty, are the most effective deterrent against crime.

In 2009, Nagaenthran was working as a welder in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, and desperately trying to find extra money to support his father, who was due to have a heart operation. Nagaenthran approached a man to ask for a loan of roughly £100, campaigners say, and was subsequently coerced into smuggling the package.

His family have described him as sweet and caring but easily led and vulnerable.

On Monday, hundreds of people in Singapore held a candlelight vigil at a park to protest against the planned execution.

Nagaenthran’s mother, Panchalai Supermaniam, filed a last-ditch legal challenge on Tuesday, seeking to halt the execution, but it was refused. Her motion argued that Nagaenthran may not have received a fair trial because the chief justice, who presided over his previous failed appeals, was attorney general at the time he was convicted in 2010, creating a potential conflict of interest. The court ruled on Tuesday that the motion was “devoid of merit”.

Afterwards, Nagaenthran asked the court for permission to hold his family’s hands as a “final wish”. He was allowed to spend two hours with relatives in the supreme court building.

His mother had warned previously that his mental state had deteriorated during his time on death row, where he was kept in solitary confinement, and that he was at times incoherent. He did not seem to understand that he would be hanged, she said in a letter to Singapore’s president, Halimah Yacob, in December. Instead, he would talk about going home and eating his mother’s cooking.

Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty, said Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s name would go down in history as “the victim of a tragic miscarriage of justice”.

“From rushed hearings to intimidation of Nagen’s lawyers, this case has laid bare Singaporean authorities’ hollow claims about affording due process. But this is a watershed moment. With Nagen’s plight igniting unprecedented protests in the country calling for abolition of the death penalty, it’s clear the tide is turning in Singapore.

“Capital punishment in Singapore disproportionately targets drug mules rather than the drug lords that traffic or manipulate them. Most of its victims are, like Nagen, poor, vulnerable and from marginalised communities. This is a broken system,” said Foa.

On Wednesday morning, Nagaenthran’s brother Navin Kumar, 22, told Reuters by telephone the execution had been carried out. The funeral would be held in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia, he said.

In a statement prior to Nagaenthran’s execution, UN human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani expressed deep concern at the “rapid rise” in the number of execution notices issued this year in Singapore, mainly for drug-related offences.

Last month, after a pause of more than two years in carrying out executions, Singapore executed Abdul Kahar bin Othman, who was convicted of drug-related offences.

Associated Press contributed to this report.



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