A 46-year-old Singaporean man was hanged early Wednesday amid growing international and domestic criticism of the city state’s use of the death penalty.
Tangaraju Suppiah was sentenced to death in 2018 for the crime of “abetting the trafficking” of more than a kilogram of cannabis, and his execution was the first this year. He and his family had appealed for clemency, and international figures and organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), urged Singapore to reconsider.
Singapore has some of the world’s toughest anti-drug laws, with mandatory death sentences for most trafficking offences, such as dealing more than 500 grams of cannabis, a drug that is increasingly being decriminalized or legalized in much of the world, including parts of Asia.
In a statement released before Mr. Tangaraju was killed, OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani noted “concerns around due process and respect for fair trial guarantees” in his case and urged that his execution be halted. Lawmakers from the European Union and Australia, as well as billionaire Richard Branson, also called for clemency.
The Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), a Singaporean anti-death penalty organization, said there were “serious problems” with the evidence in Mr. Tangaraju’s case, which they described as “shockingly thin.”
He was never found in possession of the drugs he was convicted of trafficking – prosecutors said he co-ordinated delivery by telephone. His conviction was based on statements he gave during police interrogation, when no lawyer was present, and on the testimony of his co-accused, who appeared as witnesses against him.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Asia, pointed to “many flaws in the case, from lack of access to legal counsel … to the lack of disclosure of key evidence from the prosecution.”
Concerns about his conviction aside, executing someone over a kilo of cannabis is wildly out of step with the laws in most developed countries, including those that retain the death penalty. In her statement, Ms. Shamdasani said that “imposing the death penalty for drug offences is incompatible with international norms and standards.”
Canada carried out its last hangings in 1962 and abolished capital punishment in 1976. In the U.S., where 27 states, the federal government and the military still have the death penalty, it can only be imposed in cases “such as murder, treason, genocide, or the killing or kidnapping of a Congressman, the President, or a Supreme Court justice,” according to the Department of Justice.
Cannabis has been legal for medicinal use in Canada for 20 years and for recreational use since 2018, as is the case in the majority of the U.S. Even parts of Asia have moved in this direction, with Thailand legalizing the drug last year. It is also legal for medicinal use in Australia and New Zealand.
“It is just illogical to know that countries nearby are enjoying cannabis in food and beverages, and using it for its medical benefits, while our country is executing people for the very same substance,” TJC said in a statement.
While capital punishment maintains broad support in Singapore, where there are tight restrictions on media and the right to protest, TJC is part of a growing domestic movement.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail earlier this year, TJC campaigner Kirsten Han said greater public awareness of executions – which in the past were often not publicized – has started to turn the tide. Polling shows few people support mandatory capital punishment for all but the most serious crimes.
This month, Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia abolished mandatory executions and limited the use of capital punishment to only a handful of offences.