What you need to know
Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man at risk of execution in Singapore, did not receive any of the procedural accommodations that international experts now say persons with disabilities should have.
Rozman bin Jusoh was hanged in Singapore for drug trafficking on April 12, 1996. He was still in his early twenties then, but his youth wasn’t the main problem. In the course of his trial, he’d been found to have an IQ of 74 (the average is 100), and to often be “plainly confused,” even when asked simple questions. His trial judge had described him as a “guileless simpleton,” and chose not to convict him of a capital charge that would result in the mandatory death penalty. The prosecution appealed, and the Court of Appeal ruled in their favor, sentencing Rozman to death.
I remember first coming across Rozman’s case back in 2010 when I began to research the death penalty in Singapore. I remember the disbelief, the horror. We did that. Singapore did that, it was done in all our names. I was very naïve back then; in those early days of self-education, a part of me had still held on to the belief that, cruel though the death penalty was, the system would surely spare no effort to make sure that only the most “deserving” were sent to the gallows. Surely no one would allow an execution to take place until every question, every doubt, every concern had been addressed? Rozman’s story shattered that naïveté and made me realise how easy it can be for persons with disabilities to be caught up in the harshest of systems.
Today, looking through the online comments on the case of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with disabilities currently at risk of execution in Singapore, I suspect many other people — especially young Singaporeans — are going through a process of shock and horror similar to what I’d encountered a decade ago. Nagaenthran’s case should be a wake-up call for all of us to consider how the death penalty affects some of the most vulnerable among us, and whether there are enough procedural safeguards.
While the court found that Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled, he was found to have an IQ of 69, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and impairments related to his executive functioning. These conditions are likely to affect the way he reasons, considers consequences, evaluates situations and makes decisions. In short, Nagaenthran has a psychosocial disability — a term to describe how people with mental health conditions encounter barriers that others do not when they are interacting with their social environment.
In amendments made to the that came into force in 2013, the courts can sentence someone to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty if they are “suffering from such abnormality of mind [...] as substantially impaired his or her mental responsibility” for the offense. But this isn’t enough to protect people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities from execution. As Harm Reduction International pointed out in their , it’s not enough to prove an intellectual or psychosocial disability; a defendant has to also prove that this disability diminished their mental responsibility for the offense.
“In the two death penalty cases reviewed [of which one was Nagaenthran’s], the courts concluded that the mere fact that the defendants were functionally able to take part in a drug offence proves that they have no ‘abnormality of mind’, even though reports by independent psychiatrists point to the contrary,” the international NGO noted in their submissions.
Under the heat of to Nagaenthran’s execution, the Singapore government has defended its position by that he’d received “full due process under the law.” But concerns raised by observers about Nagaenthran’s encounter with the law remain unanswered.
Our collective understanding of what is needed to support the access to justice for persons with disabilities has grown in recent years; many of the best practices that exist in international standards today are fairly new. The were only published by the United Nations in August 2020. It’s not surprising that many countries, Singapore included, are still behind when it comes to reforms and implementing procedural accommodations. Still, we’ve made some moves to improve things.
In 2013, the Singapore Police Force officers to recognize suspects or witnesses with intellectual disabilities, so that support can be offered. Two years later, the government introduced the , allowing people with intellectual disabilities to be accompanied by trained volunteers during police questioning. While there’s still a long way to go, such training and support demonstrates an official acknowledgement of the needs of persons with disabilities when they come into contact with law enforcement and legal processes. The problem here, though, is that Nagaenthran was arrested in 2009, years before any of this was implemented, and therefore benefitted from none of it.
Nagaenthran might have been accorded “full due process,” as the government put it. But our understanding of access to justice for persons with disabilities has shifted significantly since his arrest, trial and conviction. The person the Singaporean state wants to put to death now is a man with psychosocial disabilities who, at the time of his investigation and trial, did not receive any of the procedural accommodations that international experts now say persons with disabilities should have. This would be a concern for anyone sentenced to criminal punishment, but when that punishment is the harshest of them all — and irreversible to boot — should we not stop ourselves from ending a life?
Nagaenthran’s next court hearing is scheduled for the first day of March. The Court of Appeal will then hear an appeal, as well as an application for his execution to be stayed pending further assessment by a panel of psychiatrists. But regardless of what the court decides, it is within the power of the Cabinet of Singapore to advise the president to grant him clemency.
It is too late for Rozman bin Jusoh, the man whose horrific execution shattered all my illusions about Singapore’s death penalty regime. It is not too late for Nagaenthran.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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