As executions pick up in Singapore, some rethink death penalty

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In the tiny island nation of Singapore, six people – all on death row for drug offenses – have been hanged in the past month as executions pick up speed following a 2-year hiatus during the pandemic.

The killings have rekindled debate around the death penalty in the city-state, where people are increasingly expressing compassion for the convicted and their families, especially given evidence that severe punishments don’t necessarily equal safer streets. Indeed, experts around the world agree there is no proof that death sentences are any better at deterring crime than other punishments. 

Why We Wrote This

For decades, Singapore has leaned on capital punishment as a key tool in its war on drugs. Some believe the no-tolerance approach makes Singapore safer, but a recent wave of executions has others calling for compassion.

Yet the Singapore government is standing firmly behind its use of the death penalty as a deterrent, ramping up the pace of executions even as neighboring countries relax their drug laws.

Meanwhile, hundreds gathered twice in April to rally against the death penalty at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park, and many on social media are continuing to voice their concerns about the country’s war on drugs. On one website, Singaporeans have been leaving messages for the families of recently executed men.

“I am so sorry,” writes one netizen to Nazeri Lajim, who was hanged on July 22 for trafficking just over an ounce of heroin. “You deserved compassion and a second chance.”

Singapore

Nazira Lajim Hertslet recalls the day she learned that her older brother, Nazeri Lajim, had been sentenced to death for trafficking just over an ounce of heroin. Mr. Nazeri had battled with a long-term drug addiction, and his supplier had been given a life sentence. 

“For the first time in my life, from the bottom of my heart, I hated Singapore,” she says. “It is a cruel place.” 

Ms. Nazira had visited her brother in prison every month for the past five years and recently doubled down on efforts to save him from the gallows, drafting petitions, working with activists, and giving interviews. But it wasn’t enough. Mr. Nazeri was hanged at dawn on July 22. 

Why We Wrote This

For decades, Singapore has leaned on capital punishment as a key tool in its war on drugs. Some believe the no-tolerance approach makes Singapore safer, but a recent wave of executions has others calling for compassion.

Five more men have been hanged since, as executions pick up speed in Singapore following a 2-year hiatus during the pandemic. Most recently, authorities executed Abdul Rahim Shapiee on Aug. 5, just hours after learning his appeal had been denied, along with co-accused Ong Seow Ping. Overall, 10 people – all on death row for drug offenses – have been hanged in less than five months this year. The killings have rekindled debate around the death penalty in Singapore, where people have long viewed capital punishment as a way to protect communities against the very real threats of drug trafficking in the region. 

Singaporeans are increasingly calling for compassion toward the convicted and their families, especially given evidence that severe punishments don’t necessarily equal safer streets. Meanwhile, activists are racing against time, trying to stop executions as well as locate and support the families of inmates, who are battling some of the world’s harshest anti-drug laws. 

“The merciless pace of executions has been a huge source of distress,” says activist and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, who’s been involved with the local anti-death penalty advocacy group Transformative Justice Collective since it formed in October 2020. “There isn’t enough time to process or grieve one hanging before another comes again. It’s horrific.”

Courtesy of Nazira Lajim Hertslet

Nazira Lajim Hertslet holds a portrait of her brother, Nazeri Lajim, at her home in Singapore on Aug. 7, 2022. Mr. Nazeri was executed on July 22. “It shattered me to lose my dearest brother this way,” she says.

Who gets the death penalty in Singapore?

The vast majority of death sentences in Singapore are for drug-related offenses, and many are against low-level drug couriers.

In some cases, the death penalty is mandatory, including when a person is found to be trafficking 15 grams of heroin. (For comparison, in the United States, 100 grams triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison.)



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