Activists welcome ruling saving drug mule from gallows

Human rights groups today welcomed a Singapore court’s decision to spare a Malaysian drug trafficker from the gallows but called for the outright abolition of executions in the city-state.

High Court Judge Choo Han Teck yesterday re-sentenced Yong Vui Kong, 25, to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane under Singapore’s new discretionary death penalty regime that came into effect this year.

Prior to the changes, judges had no choice but to impose death by hanging on drug traffickers found to be carrying illegal substances beyond specific limits.

For heroin dealers, anyone found trafficking in more than 15 grammes faced the mandatory death penalty. Yong was found in possession of 47 grammes when he was arrested in 2007.

“This decision gives a welcome glimmer of hope for others on death row in Singapore,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.

“This is an important victory for Singapore’s anti-death penalty activists who have made Yong’s case a cause célèbre, and a vote for sanity after years of prosecutors marching drug mules to the gallows,” he said.

Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia Research director, said: “This is a landmark ruling, and possibly the first time in history that someone sentenced to death under Singapore’s draconian drugs laws has had their sentence commuted.”

Under the legal reforms that took effect this year, courts can impose a life term as well as an unspecified number of strokes of the cane if a drug trafficker, like Yong, provides “substantive assistance” to police in the fight against the drug trade and is a mere courier.

Both Rife and Robertson called on Singapore to abolish the death penalty altogether and condemned the imposition of caning, a punishment given to male convicts in Singapore for serious offences.

“Yong Vui Kong should never have had to suffer through six years on death row for a non-lethal offence which doesn’t warrant a death sentence under international law,” said Rife in a statement.

“He must also be spared the 15 cane strokes, which is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”

We Believe in Second Chances, a Singapore-based anti-death penalty group that had campaigned for Yong to be spared from the gallows, called for judges to be given full discretion in meting out the death penalty.

“The accused person may potentially be disadvantaged in being able to discharge the burden of showing that the requirements have been met,” it said in a statement.

“This is unacceptable, especially since the punishment is mandatory death.”

Singapore’s law and foreign minister K. Shanmugam, speaking on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit in Colombo, told Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper that Yong had given information “which led to the arrest of someone else more senior in the hierarchy”.

Singapore, widely regarded as one of the world’s safest societies, maintains that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.

The latest official statistics showed that no one was executed in Singapore in 2012, while four people were executed in the previous year.