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A man rests as the central business district is shrouded by haze in Singapore, on Sept. 23, 2019.Vincent Thian/The Associated Press

Singapore has executed a woman for the first time in almost two decades, amid intense criticism of what activists have called the city state’s “bloodthirsty streak” of hangings.

Saridewi Djamani, 45, received a mandatory death sentence in 2018 after being convicted of attempting to traffic 31 grams of heroin. On Friday she became the first woman to be hanged since 2004, when hairdresser Yen May Woen was executed, also on drug charges.

Singapore is one of only a handful of countries – along with China, Saudi Arabia and Iran – that execute people for drug offences, often for relatively tiny amounts. Earlier this year, Singapore hanged Tangaraju Suppiah for trafficking just over a kilogram of cannabis, a drug that has been legal in Canada and other parts of the world for years.

According to the United Nations, imposing the death penalty is “incompatible with international norms and standards.”

Canada carried out its last hangings in 1962 and removed capital punishment from its Criminal Code 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.

Mr. Suppiah’s was the first execution this year in Singapore, following a six-month pause after a spate of hangings in 2022 – including that of Malaysian trafficker Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who psychologists said had a mental disability – sparked condemnation from the UN, the European Union and human-rights activists.

Earlier this week, Singapore executed 57-year-old Mohd Aziz bin Hussain. Another man is due to be killed next week, said the Transformative Justice Collective, a Singaporean anti-death penalty group, citing a notice sent to the prisoner’s family. Both were convicted of drug possession and attempted trafficking.

TJC condemned the “bloodthirsty streak” of hangings, calling for “an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”

In a statement, Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau said “capital punishment is used only for the most serious crimes, such as the trafficking of significant quantities of drugs which cause very serious harm, not just to individual drug abusers, but also to their families and the wider society.”

“Capital punishment is part of Singapore’s comprehensive harm prevention strategy, which targets both drug demand and supply,” the bureau added.

Years of research have found little to no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent, with abolition often followed by a drop in crime. Asia has some of the world’s toughest drug laws, but the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in June that trafficking had surged to “extreme levels” across the region.

About 170 countries have abolished or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty, according to the UN. Of the 50 or so countries that retain it, the vast majority of executions are carried out in just four: China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

In April, Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia scrapped the death penalty for all but the most serious crimes and abolished mandatory capital punishment completely. In parliament, deputy law minister Ramkarpal Singh said “the death penalty has not brought about the results it was intended to bring.”

This week, lawmakers in Ghana went further, abolishing capital punishment entirely, a move they said would bring the African country in line with the “international human rights position.”

Singapore’s government consistently cites public support for the death penalty as justification for executions. A government poll published last year found 73.7 per cent of Singaporeans supported capital punishment in principle and 65.6 per cent supported mandatory executions for those convicted of trafficking a “significant amount of drugs.”

Activists have questioned the methodology of such polling, however, particularly what constitutes a “significant amount” in drug cases. The death penalty is currently imposed for possession of more than 15 grams of heroin or 500 grams of cannabis. Independent research by the National University of Singapore previously found that less than half the country supported mandatory capital punishment.

Singapore’s draconian approach to drugs also affects citizens overseas, advocates say. Haseenah Koyakutty, whose brother Kunju Jamaludeen is jailed in China on drug smuggling charges, said the Singaporean government has done little on his behalf due to the nature of his alleged crime.

Mr. Jamaludeen, 66, recently underwent emergency heart surgery, and Ms. Koyakutty described him as being emaciated and weak after a tightly supervised visit this month. She has urged the Singaporean government to push for compassionate release or for her brother to be transferred to a prison in Singapore to serve out his life sentence closer to his family.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment about Mr. Jamaludeen’s case.

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