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Singapore completes review of mandatory death penalty

Singapore has completed a review of the mandatory death penalty for all its laws. On Monday, Parliament was given an update of the review in relation to laws related to drug offences and certain types of homicides.

SINGAPORE: The Singapore government has completed a review of the mandatory death penalty for all its laws.

On Monday, Parliament was given an update of the review in relation to laws related to drug offences and certain types of homicides.

In a ministerial statement in the House, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean said that all executions that have come due since the review started in July 2011, have been deferred.

And he explained that the review reaffirmed the relevance of the death penalty for all the offences to which it currently applied.

Mr Teo said: "The death penalty has been an important part of our criminal justice system for a very long time, similar to the position in a number of other countries.

"Singaporeans understand that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for very serious offences, and largely support it. As part of our penal framework, it has contributed to keeping crime and the drug situation under control."

For drug traffickers, Mr Teo said that the review concluded that the mandatory death penalty should continue to apply in most circumstances.

However, where two specific, tightly-defined conditions are met, Mr Teo said the death penalty will still apply but it will now be at the discretion of the courts.

These conditions are: firstly, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier, and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs; secondly, discretion will only apply if having satisfied the first requirement, either the trafficker has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.

Mr Teo said that the government proposes to change the law such that when these conditions are met, the courts will have the discretion either to sentence the trafficker to death, or alternatively to pass a sentence of life imprisonment with caning.

Under Singapore's laws, anyone who trafficks drugs is liable for the death penalty - from syndicate leaders, to distributors, to couriers who transport drugs, and pushers who sell drugs - as long as the quantity of drugs involved is above the stipulated thresholds.

Mr Teo noted that the weight element is often misunderstood. He said the mandatory death penalty threshold for heroin is 15 grammes of pure diamorphine, which is often portrayed as the weight of a few 50-cent coins.

But in street form in Singapore, at a typical purity level of 2.3%, 15 grammes of pure diamorphine is equivalent to some 2,200 straws of heroin worth S$66,000, based on each straw having a gross weight of about 0.3gm and street price of about S$30.

DPM Teo warned that this quantity was enough to feed the addiction of more than 300 abusers for a week. In such cases, the death penalty is imposed, given the harm caused by these drug traffickers and the numbers of lives they destroy.

He said: "The government's duty is first and foremost to provide a safe and secure living environment for Singaporeans to bring up their families. We must be constantly vigilant, adapt our law enforcement strategies and deterrence and punishment regime to remain ahead of criminals.

"We must do what works for us, to achieve our objective of a safe and secure Singapore. The changes announced today will sharpen our tools and introduce more calibration into the legal framework against drug trafficking, and put our system on a stronger footing for the future."

Concluding, Mr Teo said the government will monitor how the changes impact and influence the behaviour of the criminal organisations. If the situation worsens, it will consider tightening the provisions or making other changes.

On homicide offences, Parliament was also informed that the review of the mandatory death penalty showed that Singapore should retain the death penalty in its penal laws, except for certain types of homicides where it should no longer be mandatory but be at the discretion of the courts.

Law Minister K Shanmugam explained that the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to the most serious form of murder, intentional killing.

Mr Shanmugam warned that offenders who intended to cause the death of their victims ought to be punished with the most severe penalty, and the law ought to provide the most powerful deterrent against such offences.

However, he explained that other categories of murder could be committed with different degrees of intent and under a variety of situations that may not deserve the death penalty.

In such cases, the courts should be given the discretion to order either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

"This change will ensure that our sentencing framework properly balances the various objectives: justice to the victim, justice to society, justice to the accused, and mercy in appropriate cases," Mr Shanmugam said. "This is a matter of judgement and the approach being taken is not without risks, but we believe this is a step we can take."

The minister explained that the changes were a right step to take as Singapore society becomes safer, less violent and more mature, citing the nation's relatively low incidence of homicides, with 16 recorded homicides, or about 0.3 per 100,000 population, in 2011.

Mr Shanmugam told Parliament that once legislation has been put in place, all accused persons who meet the requirements can elect to be considered for re-sentencing under the new law.

This will include accused persons in ongoing cases, as well as convicted persons who have already exhausted their appeals and are currently awaiting execution.

"While we have outlined the principle of the changes today, those giving legal advice to the accused persons should carefully study the legislation when it is enacted and properly understand the precise scope of the changes. In the meantime, they should not make any assumptions or give misleading advice," Mr Shanmugam said.

The minister also told Parliament that for firearms offences, the government's conclusion is that such offences are a serious threat against law and order, against which the country must continue to maintain a highly deterrent posture.

The mandatory death penalty will therefore also continue to apply to firearms offences.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that in making the changes, the government seeks to achieve and balance two broad objectives.

The first is to continue taking a strong stance on crime.

"Where many other countries have failed, Singapore has succeeded in keeping the drug menace under control. Singapore's homicide rate is one of the lowest in the world, and we believe that the deterrent effect of the death penalty has played an important part in this. Our tough approach to crime has resulted in crime rates which are significantly lower than many other major cities," he said.

"Young children can take public transport by themselves. Women can move around the city freely. We have no gun violence, no protection rackets, no drug pushers on the streets, no inner-city ghettoes. Citizens and visitors alike feel safe, in and out of home, at all hours of the day. This is something enjoyed by few cities in the world. This is something we should seek to preserve."

The second is the refinement of Singapore's approach towards sentencing offenders.

Mr Shanmugam warned that Singapore's cardinal objectives remain the same and crime must be deterred and society must be protected against criminals.

"Justice can be tempered with mercy and, where appropriate, offenders should be given a second chance," he said.

"How these objectives are achieved and balanced depend on the values and expectations of society, as it evolves and matures. We believe the proposed changes strike the right balance for Singapore today. They will seek to ensure that our criminal justice system continues to provide the framework for a safe and secure Singapore, while meeting the need for fairness and justice in each case."

Draft legislation implementing the proposed changes to the application of the death penalty to drug and homicide offences will be introduced in Parliament later this year.

Currently, there are 35 persons awaiting capital punishment; 28 are for drug offences and seven for murder.

Arguably the most high-profile case is that of Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong. He was sentenced to death in 2008 for trafficking heroin. He was 19 at the time.

Amnesty International has cited Yong's case in its recent calls on the Singapore government to abolish capital punishment.

Yong's lawyer M Ravi told Channel NewsAsia that his client is "most eligible for death sentence to be reconsidered under the amended law as his mastermind will be a witness to the prosecution to attest that Yong is a mule". The mastermind is allegedly Yong's boss, Singaporean Chia Choon Leng.

Also on death row is Pathip Selvan Sugumaran. He was convicted of killing his 18-year-old girlfriend in 2009.

Both men are appealing their convictions.

Source: CNA/wm/ir


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