The Post reported Friday that the Trump administration was considering policy changes to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and that Singaporean representatives have briefed senior White House officials on their country’s drug policies
Trump’s comments have been consistent with his penchant for embracing no-holds-barred policies and rhetoric on drug crimes, from his Justice Department’s directive to federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible, to his extraordinary endorsement of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose drug war has left thousands of suspected drug dealers dead without as much as a day in court.
But Singapore’s unyielding stance on law and order has long raised red flags among human-rights groups, especially as more countries eliminate the death penalty. Advocates say Singapore’s judicial process is often shrouded in secrecy and misinformation and is designed to tip the scales of justice heavily toward prosecutors, who have nearly limitless power over who dies and who is spared.
The method of execution has also been met with harsh criticism.
People convicted of capital offenses in Singapore are executed by hanging, which Kirsten Han, co-founder of an anti-death penalty group in Southeast Asia, described in chilling detail: “A noose — measured according to the individual’s height — is placed over the prisoner’s head, the knot behind the right ear to ensure the spinal cord is snapped upon the impact of the long drop through the trapdoor.”
Families are never present, just prison officers and doctors.
In a seemingly unusual part of the execution practice in Singapore, the small city-state once known as the world’s most active executioner per capita, those condemned to die are allowed to change into regular clothes the day before they’re killed — so they can pose for a picture that will be given to loved ones as a keepsake.
Australia’s then-attorney general called the method “a most unfortunate, barbaric act” in 2005, when an Australian heroin trafficker was executed in Changi Prison. Many Australians held candlelit vigils on the eve of Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution.
Hanging was the most common method of execution in the United States in the 1800s before widespread adoption of the electric chair. It remains widespread in several countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
It is the lone method of capital punishment in Singapore, where executions are on the decline: The government has executed 24 people over the past decade — 16 of whom were convicted of drug crimes.
Singapore’s mandatory death sentence would be imposed equally on a person who trafficked more than 15 grams of heroin and a person who bombed a government building and killed dozens. To place this in context, trafficking a much larger amount of heroin in the United States — 100 to 999 grams — is punishable by five to 40 years in prison.
Similarly, Singapore has some of the world’s toughest gun laws. For example, a person who fires a gun, or attempts to fire a gun, while committing a crime in Singapore faces a mandatory death sentence upon conviction — even if nobody is wounded or killed.
“Simply having the keys to a car or to a room or to a house where drugs were found” means that a person is a presumed drug trafficker and, therefore, could face the death penalty, said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert for Amnesty International.
Hence, there is no presumption of innocence. The burden of proof is on the accused, who are often poor people far down the drug chain, and foreigners who might not be fluent in the local languages, Sangiorgio said.
Advocates say there’s no evidence that executions are any more of a crime deterrent than lesser punishments. In 2009, researchers from Columbia Law School compared murder rates in Singapore and Hong Kong, where capital punishment was abolished in 1993, and found little difference.
But Singaporean officials have long insisted that the specter of death, particularly for drug traffickers, has worked for their city-state.
“Singapore is relatively drug-free, and the administration is under control. There are no drug havens, no no-go zones, no drug production centers, no needle exchange programs,” K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister of home affairs and law, said in 2016.
A “soft approach,” he said, would flood the island state with narcotics — a line of thinking that appears to be similar to Trump’s.
The number of executions every year, however, has significantly dropped, and changes have been adopted.
Singapore, which is about half the size of Los Angeles, executed 76 people in 1994 and 73 in 1995, when the population was just more than 3 million. In 2015 and 2016, there were just eight executions in total on the island — five for people convicted of drug crimes.
Changes in 2013 to Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act gave judges leeway in sentencing if defendants meet two conditions: (1) they were merely couriers or drug mules and (2) they have greatly cooperated with law-enforcement officers by tipping them about other drug traffickers. Alternatively, those who have proven that they are couriers can also be spared if they are mentally or intellectually disabled. A judge can impose lesser sentences, such as life imprisonment and caning — a type of punishment that drew controversy in the United States in 1994, when a 19-year-old American was caned for vandalism.
The revised laws have cut the number of those sentenced to death. According to a recent study by Amnesty International, 38 out of 93 people convicted of murder and drug trafficking from Jan. 1, 2013, were spared from hanging.
Shanmugam, the Singaporean minister, also said last year that the drug trade has hardly flourished since the changes: Officials have caught 90 traffickers since 2012 through the help of drug couriers who cooperate in exchange for leniency, he said.
Eugene K.B. Tan, a professor at the Singapore Management University School of Law, called the revisions “tempering justice with mercy” in a 2016 column for the Straits Times.
“The Government has determined that the mandatory death penalty (MDP) may not be needed for all types of serious crimes. This is an important first step, notwithstanding the attraction and force of the MDP was its unequivocal demonstration of zero tolerance and resolve in maximum deterrence,” Tan wrote. “Yet, the shift to the discretionary death penalty regime should not be misconstrued as Singapore letting up on drug trafficking and murders. Instead, this shift was necessary to retain public confidence and legitimacy in our administration of criminal justice.”
But the revisions did little to ease the concerns of human-rights advocates.
Amnesty International analyzed judgments issued by Singapore’s High Court and Court of Appeal on the cases of 137 people charged with capital offenses from 2008, five years before the changes took place, to 2017, four years after. The organization said it found that although executions are happening far less often, major human-rights violations still occur.
Defense attorneys, for example, are never present during interrogations. In many cases, particularly in the case of foreigners, the statements that lead to conviction were either misrepresented or were lost in translation, Sangiorgio said.
Prosecutors and not the judges still have unchallenged power to decide whether defendants should be spared from the gallows based on their level of cooperation. Prosecutors must first issue what is called a “certificate of substantive assistance,” which confirms that a defendant has given them substantial information about other drug traffickers. Only then can judges decide on a lesser punishment. In many cases, however, defendants can be so far down the drug hierarchy that they do not have any meaningful information to give, Sangiorgio said.
“In other words, people pay with their lives for failing to provide information which they are incapable of providing,” according to the study.
Take, for example, the case of a 32-year-old Malaysian man who was convicted after the Central Narcotics Bureau found him with 16.56 grams of heroin, just above the legal threshold. He told police that a friend had offered to pay him the equivalent of $236 to deliver the heroin. His attorney asked the High Court to consider him a courier, but prosecutors, without explanation, declined to issue a certificate of substantive assistance, leaving the judge with no other choice but to sentence him to death.
Here’s how the High Court described the state of affairs in a 2016 ruling on the case of a man who was convicted of trafficking more than 100 grams of heroin:
“He is not given a certificate of substantive assistance. ... We do not know why. He might not have much assistance to give. He might have declined to assist, in which event we do not know if his depressive illness had any connection to that attitude. ... The language of the law here is precise and simple. Life, on the other hand, is not so. Every life is complex in its own way. The mandatory death penalty has been the law for a long time and I do not think that in providing the changes set out in [Section 33B Parliament] has become more lenient towards drug trafficking. This crime is no less serious today than it was before the amendment.”
Singapore and the United States were among the 40 countries and territories that voted against a United Nations resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions in 2016.
Axios reporter Jonathan Swan first reported in February that Trump had been pondering the idea of executing drug traffickers and that the president had “talked up” executions of drug dealers in China, the Philippines and Singapore to not just confidants but also members of Congress and some foreign leaders.
At the White House’s opioid summit at the beginning of March, the president said the United States needs to be “very strong on penalties,” but he did not explicitly say that he wants capital punishment for drug dealers.
“If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.... Some countries have a very, very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty,” the president said, without naming any specific country. “And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”
This post, originally published on Feb. 27, has been updated.