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Campaigners make last effort to save man with intellectual disabilities from execution in Singapore

Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old Malaysian man, was arrested in 2009 for bringing 42.7 grams (1.5 ounces) of heroin into Singapore. He was due to be executed by hanging on Wednesday.

On Monday, the High Court ordered a stay of execution following a last minute constitutional challenge, his lawyer in Singapore M. Ravi posted on Facebook — a small glimmer of hope for Dharmalingam’s supporters.

The stay is temporary for now. The court on Monday dismissed the lawyer’s application to declare the execution unconstitutional, but granted a stay of execution until an appeal on its decision can be heard.

Anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han said “if the Court of Appeal dismisses this as well, then the stay will be lifted.”

She said Dharmalingam’s family are “very relieved.”

“But they are also aware that the appeal could be quite soon. We don’t know how long this stay is going to last, it could actually not be a very long stay at all. So they are mentally prepared for that. But in such cases, every little bit of hope is really important,” Han said.

Dharmalingam’s lawyers and rights groups fighting to save him say Singapore is violating international law by executing a person with a mental impairment. They have exhausted all other legal appeals and a petition to the President for clemency was unsuccessful.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement Dharmalingam “was accorded full due process under the law, and was represented by legal counsel throughout the process.”

However, his lawyers argue that Dharmalingam should not have been sentenced to death under Singaporean law because he was incapable of understanding his actions. A psychologist assessed his IQ to be 69, which is internationally recognized as an intellectual disability. At his trial, the defense also argued he had severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline intellectual functioning, and severe alcohol use disorder.

Dharmalingam has spent a decade on death row and during that time his condition has further deteriorated, his lawyers said.

“He has not a very good sense of what is happening around him,” said N. Surendran, a Malaysian lawyer who is representing Dharmalingam’s family, and adviser to Malaysian NGO Lawyers for Liberty. “He is disoriented. He’s got no real clue of what is going to happen to him.”

Surendran said executing Dharmalingam “would be tantamount to executing a child.”

Singapore has some of the strictest drug laws in the world. Trafficking a certain amount of drugs — for example, 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of heroin — results in a mandatory death sentence under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It was only recently — and after Dharmalingam’s case began — the law was amended to allow for a convicted person to escape the death penalty in certain circumstances.

Dharmalingam was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death by Singapore’s High Court in 2010. His first appeal was dismissed a year later. Another appeal after Singapore amended its drug law was again rejected in 2018.

“The Court of Appeal affirmed the High Court’s decision and said that it was satisfied that Nagaenthran clearly understood the nature of his acts,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement.

The court argued Dharmalingam transported drugs “in order to pay off his debts” and he knew it was unlawful so he “attempted to conceal the bundle by strapping it to his left thigh.” It also said Dharmalingam was “continuously altering his account of his education qualifications, ostensibly to reflect lower educational qualifications each time he was interviewed.”

“This was ‘the working of a criminal mind, weighing the risks and countervailing benefits associated with the criminal conduct in question.’ Nagaenthran considered the risks, balanced it against the reward he had hoped he would get, and decided to take the risk,” the ministry said in its statement, quoting the court’s decision.

Public pressure

Dharmalingam’s case has sparked international condemnation — even British Virgin boss Richard Branson has appealed for clemency.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has written to his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsein Loong asking for leniency, Malaysian state media Bernama reported.

More than 62,000 people have signed a petition urging Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob to issue a pardon. Last week, dozens of activists protested outside Parliament in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) and other rights groups have also called on the Singapore government to halt the execution.

“Executing a man with a disability, who was convicted after an investigation and trial that provided no disability-specific accommodations, violates international law and won’t deter crime,” Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“Singapore should commute Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s sentence and amend its laws to ensure that no one is subjected to the death penalty, certainly not people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.”

Surendran, the lawyer, said the execution order was “sickening beyond belief.”

“We will work until the very last minute to save Nagaenthran but of course, as you can see time is running short,” he said.

Family ‘shocked’

Dharmalingam’s family, who live in Ipoh, northwestern Malaysia, were notified of his impending execution only on October 26. His lawyer in Singapore, M. Ravi posted the letter to Facebook, calling the order “state sanctioned murder.”

The letter stipulated only five members of Dharmalingam’s family would be allowed to enter Singapore and would need to contend with a list of Covid regulations.

Four family members — his mother, brother, sister and a cousin — managed to travel to Singapore and meet with Dharmalingam in Changi prison but were “shocked” at his condition, Surendran said.

“They see a completely different person, they’re not able to get through to him,” he said.

Han, the anti-death penalty activist, launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $19,000 Singapore dollars to pay for the family’s flights and hotels.

“This is not something that the family could have afforded themselves,” she said.

She said the execution order, made worse because it was issued shortly after the important Hindu festival Deepavali, which Dharmalingam’s family celebrates, is “very emblematic of how cold and clinical the entire death penalty regime is.”

“The Singapore government has insisted for a very long time that (the law) protects Singapore. But drug policy experts say there’s no proof that this sort of punitive capital punishment regime deters drug trafficking,” Han said.

If the execution goes ahead, Singapore would be in breach “not only of customary international law, but also their own obligations under the UN convention on the rights of disabled person, which they have signed and ratified,” Surendran said.

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