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Malaysia Should Repeal the Mandatory Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

In the past year, a significant number of foreign nationals have been sentenced to death in Malaysia for drug trafficking. Malaysia’s Dangerous Drugs Act (1952) is one of the strictest drug laws in the world, carrying the mandatory death penalty for possession and distribution of drugs.

The mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers is inherently unfair in its application. Many individuals sentenced to death under Malaysia’s harsh drug laws are foreign nationals who serve as drug mules, the most vulnerable and arguably the least responsible drug trafficking offenders. Drug mules are paid by distributors to simply transport drugs across international borders. Singapore, which also imposes the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, decided last year to factor in the extent of involvement and to allow judges to give life sentences to drug couriers. The amendment generated a landmark ruling in November that lifted the death penalty on a drug trafficker for the first time. Unlike its neighbor, Malaysia has continued its tough approach to international drug trafficking. Numerous foreign nationals from several countries, including Sweden, Nigeria, Iran, Thailand, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Germany, are facing the gallows for their arguably minimal part in the distribution of illegal narcotics.

Foreign nationals are intrinsically more vulnerable as capital defendants. They face language and cultural barriers, lack knowledge of the Malaysian legal system, have limited access to legal counsel, and are far from their support networks. Such obstacles may cause foreign nationals on death row to fare worse than their Malaysian counterparts in an already arbitrary mandatory sentencing regime.

Recent studies in the United States have shown that there is no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. This raises the important question: Will Malaysia reform its flawed mandatory death penalty system? During 2014, Malaysia has seen two instances of a possible reversal of recent trends. The first was the release of two brothers on death row in January, followed by the stay of another execution in February, both rare occurrences in Malaysia. While these two developments do not give us an answer, they look to be a step in the right direction for Malaysia moving forward.