Rights Groups Urge Singapore Not to Execute Man With Mental Disability

Human rights groups are urging Singapore to halt an execution next week of a Malaysian man convicted of smuggling heroin into the city-state, arguing that he should be exempt under international law because he has an intellectual disability.

Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, 33, was caught in 2009 with about 1.5 ounces of heroin strapped to his thigh as he entered Singapore from Malaysia. He is scheduled to be executed by hanging on Wednesday.

The courts have rejected appeals from his lawyers, who argue that his death sentence should be commuted because he has an I.Q. of 69 and is therefore not fully capable of understanding his actions. Mr. Nagaenthran has been on death row for more than a decade.

The impending execution has prompted protests in Malaysia and an online petition signed by more than 52,000 people imploring Singapore’s president, Halimah Yacob, to pardon Mr. Nagaenthran.

“Nagaenthran’s death sentence indicates that the Singapore judicial system is failing to protect the safety and welfare of those with disabilities,” the petition says. “Specifically, it demonstrates the systemic failure of Singapore’s criminal justice system to recognize the impact of intellectual disabilities on a person’s culpability and capacity to commit a criminal offense.”

The Singaporean government defended its judicial process, saying that Mr. Nagaenthran had received a fair trial and that the courts had considered intellectual disability as a defense but concluded that his “mental responsibility for his offense was not substantially impaired.”

Singapore, with a population of nearly six million, is an island nation at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and is the wealthiest country per capita in Southeast Asia.

It has long been known for its strict legal code, including caning for offenses like vandalism. Capital punishment is used for a range of crimes, including smuggling relatively small amounts of illegal drugs. Singapore last carried out executions in 2019, hanging four people.

Nagaenthran Dharmalingam holding his nephew in an undated photograph.Credit…Courtesy of Sarmila Dharmalingam, via Associated Press

Mr. Nagaenthran was arrested at a border checkpoint when he tried to enter Singapore and the authorities discovered the heroin. The Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs said it was enough to supply 510 users for a week.

During his 2010 trial, he claimed he was coerced into carrying the drugs, but he later changed his account, saying he had attempted to smuggle the heroin because he needed money. The court concluded that his story of duress was fabricated and sentenced him to death.

In 2015, he appealed to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. His lawyers argued that his I.Q. of 69, which is just below the internationally recognized threshold of 70 for determining whether someone has an intellectual disability, made him incapable of fully understanding his actions. They also argued that he suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a drinking disorder, which affected his judgment and impulse control.

The High Court rejected this appeal in 2017, concluding that he understood what he was doing and had the ability to tell right from wrong. The ruling was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal.

“The Court of Appeal found that this was the working of a criminal mind, weighing the risks and countervailing benefits associated with the criminal conduct in question, and that Nagaenthran took a calculated risk which, contrary to his expectations, materialized,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement. “It was a deliberate, purposeful and calculated decision on Nagaenthran’s part to take the chance.”

Last month, his family in Malaysia was notified that his execution had been scheduled for Nov. 10.

Singapore is known for its strict legal code, including capital punishment for crimes such as smuggling relatively small amounts of illegal drugs. Credit…Roslan Rahman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Death penalty opponents gathered this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, outside Singapore’s High Commission to protest the planned execution and outside Parliament House to urge the Malaysian government to intercede.

Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian rights group, said Singapore was defying international law and the United Nations General Assembly, which has called on member countries not to execute people with intellectual disabilities.

“That Singapore is determined now to go on with this execution is shocking and sickening,” said N. Surendran, an adviser at Lawyers for Liberty. “No civilized nation should resort to hanging the mentally disabled.”

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also urged Singapore to spare Mr. Nagaenthran.

“There is still time for Singapore to change course and stop this unlawful execution from taking place,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Singapore researcher. “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.”

The Divisions of Social Justice of the American Psychiatric Association called the planned execution “a flagrant breach” of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which prohibits imposing the death penalty on people whose mental and intellectual disabilities may impede them from receiving a fair trial.

“Nagaenthran is diagnosed by a qualified Singaporean psychiatrist as having mental health issues that give rise to poor impulse control, attention issues,” and other problems, the organization said. “As a result, he does not meet the threshold for culpability.”

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