Last-ditch bid to spare mentally impaired man from hanging in Singapore

Singapore: For nearly a week now, Sharmila Dharmalingam has been unable to muster up the strength to tell her mother the news.

That her son – Sharmila’s brother – is to be hung at Singapore’s Changi Prison next Wednesday.

A guard keeps watch over Changi Prison in Singapore where the execution will take place.Credit:Getty Images

“We [haven’t] told our mum because she’s having a health issue and we’re scared also,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“I’m very scared to inform my mum. We don’t know how to convey the message to my mother.”

More than a decade after he was condemned to death for drug trafficking, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam is scheduled to become the first prisoner executed by the city state since 2019.

Nagaenthran Dharmalingam (second from left) with his elder sister Sharmila (right) and two other relatives.

But human rights lawyers representing the 33-year-old Malaysian man argue he shouldn’t have received the death penalty because of a mental impairment.

“He doesn’t really get what is happening,” his Malaysian lawyer N Surendran said.

“He has some vague idea that something is going to happen to him on the 10th of November but he thinks he is going to go to a beautiful garden and be happy there. It’s beyond words.”

‘He’s got an IQ of 69’

The date for the execution was confirmed in a letter sent last Tuesday by the Singapore Prison Service but Sharmila has kept it from her mother in Ipoh, north-west Malaysia in the faint hope that it will be revisited.

Nagaenthran has been on death row for 11 years.

Singapore’s record of not bending from a hard line on capital punishment would suggest such an outcome is very unlikely but Nagaenthran’s legal team is preparing a last roll of the dice in court here this week.

“We are appalled and shocked. We have been calling upon Singapore not to execute Nagaenthran. We’ve been asking them to commute the sentence,” Surendran said. “He is intellectually impaired. He’s got an IQ of 69.”

Singaporean lawyer M Ravi, who represents 25 prisoners on death row on the island including Nagaenthran, told the Herald and The Age: “We will be filing an application in court [on Tuesday]. When we file it we will serve it on the Attorney-General.”

The first page of the letter sent by Singapore authorities to Nagaenthran’s family last week, informing them of his November 10 execution.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights urges nations that still use the death penalty not to impose it “on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder”.

But the arguments of Nagaenthran’s legal team have proven fruitless in multiple appeals since he was caught, at the age of 21, entering Singapore from Malaysia with 42.72g of heroin strapped to his thigh.

The amount was enough to land him an automatic death sentence when a court convicted him a year later, throwing out a defence that he acted as a drug mule under duress from a friend who had assaulted him and threatened to kill his girlfriend.

And while judges were subsequently given the discretion to convert such penalties to life in prison in some drugs cases – if the offender was proven to be simply a courier and suffering “abnormality of the mind” – several efforts to have him spared have since been rejected.

A Singaporean psychiatrist diagnosed Nagaenthran with an intellectual impairment but judges disputed the extent of it, taking issue with the Malaysian’s “conflicting accounts of the reasons for his offending”. His last two appeals were turned down in 2019.

In a bid to maintain law and order in one of the world’s safest cities, Singapore makes no apology for using the death penalty as a deterrent against serious crimes.

It once had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world, hanging more than 400 prisoners between 1991 and 2004, mainly for drug offences.

There are about 50 people currently on death row but while there have been far fewer executions in recent years, there remains support for the punishment among the population.

A 2019 survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs showed nearly seven out of 10 Singaporeans believed the death penalty to be more effective than life in prison as a deterrent against murder, the use of firearms and drug importation, although a study three years earlier by Singapore Management University found less support for capital punishment for non-violent drug crimes.

Singapore’s planned execution of Nagaenthran has been slammed by rights groups.

“In situations like these, it is like Singapore is hellbent on deliberately defying every sort of international human rights standard to carry out its capital punishment verdicts, and the consequences be damned,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division Deputy Director.

“There is really no other explanation for its decision to blatantly violate UN admonishments and proceed with the execution of someone like Nagaenthran, who suffers a mental disability. Going forward with this execution would be outrageous and unacceptable, and Singapore should stop it now before it’s too late.”

Lawyers for Nagaenthran, who have also appealed unsuccessfully to Singapore President Halimah Yacob for clemency, are outraged at the timing of the decision to carry out the sentence.

The border between Singapore and Malaysia is still closed due to the pandemic and as a result only five of Nagaenthran’s relatives are permitted to travel to the island to visit him before his execution and they must quarantine at all times while they aren’t at the prison.

Forced to rely on crowdfunding organised by journalist and anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han to pay for it, his Hindu family is also approaching the “logistical nightmare” in the same week as Deepavali, one of the most important Hindu religious festivals which marks the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.

“While we recognise the danger since he was on death row, we didn’t expect even Singapore to stoop this low, to be very frank,” said Surendran, the Malaysian lawyer.

“It seems a completely heartless and mechanical way of proceeding with things.”

Singapore’s Ministry of Law was approached for comment.

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