Singapore executes Nagaenthran Dharmalingam for drug trafficking

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SINGAPORE — Singapore on Wednesday executed an intellectually disabled man convicted of drug trafficking more than a decade ago, even as global condemnation poured in.

Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, 34, was hung at dawn for trafficking three tablespoons of heroin into Singapore, which has a zero-tolerance drug policy and some of the world’s harshest penalties for nonviolent drug offences.

Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national with an IQ of 69, said he was coerced into trafficking the package of heroin in 2009 as a way to pay off his debts. His mother said he planned to use the money to help support her. He was traveling from Malaysia to Singapore when he was caught at a border checkpoint with the heroin strapped to his thigh.

“My brother had a very soft heart. He trusted everyone,” Dharmalingam’s brother Navim Kumar told The Washington Post on Wednesday at the wake. “Yesterday he told me ‘I am okay, my heart is good. I am a good person even though I made a mistake.’”

Singapore is set to execute a mentally disabled man for trafficking 1.5 ounces of heroin

In a final appeal filed in December, Dharmalingam’s mother said he “got mixed up in criminal activity and sentenced to death because he has disabilities that affect his reasoning and judgment.” He was first sentenced to death in 2010.

But authorities rejected his mother’s 11th-hour clemency plea on Tuesday. Dharmalingam then asked the judge if he could speak with and touch his family members who were present in court.

“It is my final wish,” he said through an interpreter. He held hands with his mother through a slit in a glass courtroom partition.

In a November statement justifying the previous rejection of appeals, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said Dharmalingam was aware of the unlawful nature of his acts. “It was a deliberate, purposeful and calculated decision,” the ministry said.

His sentence drew international condemnation from governments, human rights organizations and celebrities.

Ravi Madasamy, Dharmalingam’s former lawyer, said he had never seen such a large turnout of protesters against the death penalty. “It’s not like any other case I’ve seen,” he said. “I am extremely devastated and shattered. It is unbelievable that in a city like Singapore, that is supposed to be a modern city, a mentally handicapped person has been hanged today.”

In a statement Monday ahead of the execution, the United Nations urged a halt, saying “the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses is incompatible with international human rights law.”

Singapore says that applying the death penalty for cases involving drug trafficking abides by international law if due process is followed.

The case has brought unwanted attention to Singapore’s laws on capital punishment, which are emblematic of the conservative, tough-on-crime policies the country became known for in the 20th century. The tiny island nation is one of a shrinking number of countries that imposes the death penalty for drug offences, a practice that has hobbled its efforts to become a modern, global hub in Asia.

In the 12 years since Dharmalingam was put on death row, Singapore revisited its mandatory capital punishment laws and gave judges the discretion to convert death sentences into the lesser penalty of life imprisonment. For nearly two years, Singapore halted all executions because of the coronavirus pandemic. The government has not granted clemency in a death penalty case since 1998.

But in March, the backlog of executions resumed and authorities hanged a 68-year-old man for drug trafficking. Dharmalingam’s execution is one of two scheduled in Singapore this week. Datchinamurthy Kataiah, another Malaysian citizen convicted of drug trafficking, also faces hanging.

Authorities say the death penalty has discouraged major drug trafficking — and allowed Singapore to become one of the safest places in the world. Opium trafficking dropped 66 percent just four years after the 1990 introduction of the mandatory death penalty for drug cases involving more than 42 ounces (1.2 kg). According to a 2019 study by the Ministry of Home Affairs, nearly 70 percent of Singapore residents agreed that capital punishment is more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against drug trafficking.

But slowly, dissent is emerging.

At Dharmalingam’s wake in Singapore, over a dozen activists gathered to pay their respects. They around a flower-adorned open casket and discussed how his case drew unprecedented attention to the fight to abolish the death penalty.

“There is a recognition now that the death penalty needs to go,” said Rocky How, 27, an activist who helped organize an earlier vigil for Dharmalingam. “We will fight harder and won’t stop until it is abolished.”

On Monday, 300 people gathered at the candlelight vigil to protest Dharmalingam’s execution. A change.org petition calling for him to be pardoned also gathered 100,000 signatures. Even British billionaire Richard Branson weighed inasking Singapore’s president on Twitter to spare the condemned man’s life.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Branson called the execution “a horrible blotch” on Singapore’s reputation.

“I don’t think civilized countries should be in the business of killing their own people, or killing anybody,” he said.

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