Outrage as Singapore prepares to execute man with learning disabilities over drugs charges

Rights groups have urged the Singapore government to halt the execution this week of a man convicted for smuggling heroin, stating that he has learning disabilities and the sentence is a cruel violation of international law.

Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national, was arrested in April 2009, when he was 21, for attempting to smuggle 43 grams of heroin into Singapore. The drugs had been strapped to his thigh. He was sentenced to death the following year and, having spent more than 12 years on death row, is now facing execution on 10 November.

The decision has been widely condemned by international groups including Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights, Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network and Amnesty International. An online petition in support of Nagaenthran has also attracted more than 62,000 signatures.

According to campaigners, it was disclosed during the trial that Nagaenthran has an IQ of 69, a level recognised as indicating a learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His supporters say there is evidence that Nagaenthran was forced to courier drugs as a victim of human trafficking.

Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has written to Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to ask for leniency in his case, according to Malaysian media, while the EU’s delegation to Singapore has issued a statement calling for the execution to be stopped.

More than 200 family members and friends of prisoners who have lived on death row in Singapore have also called for Nagaenthran to be spared, and for the death penalty to be abolished.

“There are no words to describe the pain of having a loved one on death row. Perhaps that is why we don’t often speak of it, and our suffering goes unnoticed,” they wrote in an open letter published by the Transformative Justice Collective. “Nagen’s family has been unable to visit him for two years, during the pandemic border closure, and with two weeks’ notice that their worst nightmare has arrived, they have to scramble to see him through a glass wall for just a few days before the date of execution.”

“Many people on death row in Singapore – like Nagen and our loved ones – come from very challenging circumstances, and have led difficult, troubled lives which have entangled them with the drug trade. Often, as a result of their marginalisation, they find themselves in desperate and compromising situations.”

A group of eight British MPs and peers has written to the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss requesting she make urgent representations to her counterpart in Singapore “urging them to ensure that an intellectually disabled victim of trafficking is not executed after what may amount to a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Singapore has some of the world’s harshest drugs laws, and the death penalty is mandatory for anyone found guilty of importing more than 15 grams of diamorphine. However, amendments passed in 2014 granted the court discretion to impose a life sentence rather than the death penalty if the defendant was only acting as a courier and “was suffering from such abnormality of mind as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in relation to the offence.”

Rights groups say that executing someone with an intellectual or psychosocial disability is a violation of international laws and standards.

The European Union’s delegation to Singapore issued a statement calling for Nagaenthran’s sentence to be commuted to a non-capital sentence. “No compelling evidence exists to show that the death penalty serves as a more efficient deterrent to crime than imprisonment,” it said.

A judicial hearing was due to take place on Monday to hear arguments that executing Nagaenthran would violate Singapore’s constitution.

Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week that the sentences were “disproportionate and cruel, and deserve global condemnation.” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Singapore Researcher, added: “Taking people’s lives is a cruel act in itself but to hang a person convicted merely of carrying drugs, amid chilling testimony that he might not even fully understand what is happening to him, is despicable.”

In a statement last week, Singapore’s Ministry of Home affairs said that Nagaenthran “was accorded full due process under the law, and was represented by legal counsel throughout the process. His Petition to the President for Clemency was unsuccessful.”

Nagaenthran was caught trafficking 42.72 grams of diamorphine, it said, “equivalent to about 3,560 straws of heroin. It would be sufficient to feed the addiction of about 510 abusers for a week.”