British aviation magnate Richard Branson has joined the chorus of calls for the Singapore government to halt the controversial execution of a mentally disabled Malaysian man, penning a personal appeal to the republic’s president to grant a pardon.
“Madame President, please spare his life and let’s work together to end executions for good,” Branson said in a blog hosted by his airline company Virgin Group.
He said the conviction of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was just one example of cases around the world where poor people forced to courier drugs to make a living had to bear “fatal consequences” while the real culprits continued to thrive with their lucrative illicit business.
“The Southeast Asian version of this story is no different. It’s almost always the most vulnerable people, people struggling to make ends meet, immigrants in need of money, that are roped into criminal schemes, unable to defend themselves when caught and facing the court.
“In Nagaenthran’s case, some have suggested that he himself may have been the victim of human trafficking. Either way, as a small cog in the wheel, he didn’t stand to gain much from his offence; the big profits are made elsewhere,” said Branson, adding that it was wrong for governments to impose capital punishment on those convicted of non-violent drug crimes.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he added.
“I’ve never made a secret of my position on capital punishment. It’s an inhumane practice that deserves no place in modern society. But no matter where you stand, it’s cases like Nagaenthran’s that illustrate why the death penalty is broken beyond repair.”
Branson’s comments come as a Singapore court today granted a stay on Nagaenthran’s execution just two days before it was scheduled to be carried out at Changi Prison.
At the heart of the outrage over his looming execution is a diagnosis of his mental capability, which found among other that he has an IQ of 69 – below the threshold of 70 for declaring a person as intellectually disabled.
Rights groups and activists have held protests over the past two weeks reminding the Singapore government of its obligation to abide by international treaties prohibiting capital punishment for mentally disabled persons.
Nagaenthran’s case was also taken up by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who penned an appeal to his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsian Loong asking him to spare Nagaenthran’s life.
More than 60,000 people have meanwhile signed an online petition to Singapore President Halimah Yacob urging her to use her powers to grant Nagaenthran a pardon.
The Singapore government, which has often cited its tough laws as a deterrent against drug crimes, responded by saying that Nagaenthran was fully aware of his actions, and suggested that he was fabricating his mental state by altering his academic qualifications to show he has inferior IQ.
The Singapore government has long defended its death penalty for drug trafficking, unlike Malaysia which has imposed a moratorium for drug-related crimes pending a review.
Critics have pointed out that many of those convicted were drug mules from poor families, while the drug kingpins who employed them would often go unpunished.
Branson described Nagaenthran’s plight as a “grave injustice”, and cited a similar case in Sabah where single mother Hairun Jalmani was sentenced to death in October.
“It’s impossible not to see the extent to which inequality, poverty and the death penalty are linked.”
He questioned the argument of a zero-tolerance approach to combat the illegal drug trade, saying experience in Southeast Asia showed that the drug business had only grown over the years.
“Year after year, people face the gallows, the firing squad, or – in Duterte’s Philippines – unaccountable death squads for alleged drug-related crimes. Yet, the global drug trade continues to grow, and illicit drugs of all types are more readily available around the world than at any other point in history.
“If deterrence is the objective, these laws have failed miserably. And they will continue to fail. What countries really need is comprehensive drug policy reform that focuses on harm reduction and public health, not on crime and punishment.”