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Photo by Lilly Marfy

Singapore to Introduce Discretionary Sentencing for Drug Couriers

In a major shift, Singapore’s government announced this week that it intends to abolish the mandatory death penalty for certain crimes relating to drug trafficking.

According to media reports, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament that a drug courier who is not involved in the supply or distribution of narcotics would not face the mandatory death penalty, so long as one of two conditions is met:  (1) he must cooperate with authorities in a « substantive » way, or (2) he must have a mental disability that « substantially impairs » his judgment of the gravity of the act.

The Singapore Law Society characterized the announcement as a “historic moment for the criminal justice system in Singapore.”  The Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore stated:  “Death row inmates deserve punishment, but not all deserve death. These new measures are progressive and will have (a) massive impact on the criminal justice system. »

There are currently 35 individuals on Singapore’s death row, many of whom should benefit from the changes in the law.  According to the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, the government is considering applying these changes retroactively.  It is not yet clear how many of the 35 condemned prisoners would qualify for resentencing under the proposed legislation.  One of them is Cheong Chun Yin, who was sentenced to death for carrying heroin from Myanmar to Singapore.  Another is Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian national who was only 19 years old when he was arrested for possession of 47 grams of heroin and sentenced to death.

In a separate statement, Singapore announced its intention to restrict the mandatory death penalty in homicide offenses to individuals who have an express intention to kill.  Singapore’s announcement is an important step toward compliance with international norms that restrict the death penalty to the “most serious offenses.”  Singapore has long been one of the most stalwart defenders of the death penalty in the United Nations, and its decision to restrict the application of the death penalty may have ripple effects in Southeast Asia.

Even with these changes, however, Singapore’s application of the death penalty fails to conform to international human rights norms.  The mandatory death penalty has been condemned by a number of international and domestic courts as an arbitrary and inhumane punishment, as it precludes judges from considering the facts of the offense and the individual characteristics of the offender in determining an appropriate sentence.