Landmark Legal Case in Singapore: Convicted Drug Trafficker’s Death Sentence Commuted To Life

The High Court of Singapore has spared the noose for convicted drug trafficker in a move human rights activists are describing as a “landmark,” given the city-state’s aggressive prosecution of narcotics dealers. Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian native who received the death penalty in 2008 after smuggling in 47 grams of heroin into Singapore, will now have his sentenced commuted to life (although he must still endure 15 strokes of the cane).

Amnesty International, the human rights organization, lauded the development as the “first case of its kind” in the wake of legal reforms passed by Singapore last November. The Bangkok Post reported that Yong was the first convicted drug trafficker to have his death sentence lifted under the new legal climate of Singapore. Previously, Singapore’s very harsh drug laws mandated death for anyone convicted of trafficking more than 15 grams (about one-half ounce) of heroin. However, judges were recently granted the right to exercise some discretion in certain cases – namely, if convicted offenders provide “substantive assistance” to police investigations or if they merely acted as drug mules (couriers).

In Yong’s case, Singaporean state prosecutors vouched that Yong has helped officials in “disrupting drug trafficking activities within and outside Singapore”, while High Court Judge Choo Han Teck determined that he was indeed only a courier. “This is the happiest day of my client’s life,” Yong’s attorney M. Ravi said, according to Agence-France Presse. “He feels intense gratitude towards all those who have worked so hard to save him from being executed.” Ravi also claimed that his client “has seen the error of his ways and has repented.”

“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,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, in a statement. But she added that: “Yong Vui Kong should never have had to suffer through six years on death row for a non-lethal offense which doesn’t warrant a death sentence under international law. He must also be spared the 15 cane strokes, which is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”

Amnesty noted that following the legal reforms last year, 34 death row prisoners in Singapore had their cases review – of that group, a total of four (including Yong) had their sentences commuted to life, but Yong’s was the only drug-related case. Yong was initially arrested by Singaporean authorities in 2007 when he was only 19 years old. The following year, he was sentenced to hang – but his lawyers appealed the decision at least thrice, according to BBC.  An appeal for presidential clemency was also denied.

His case became a cause in his homeland, with frequent protest demonstrations outside the Singaporean embassy in Malaysia. Ravi told the Star Online newspaper of Malaysia that Yong, now 25, knelt before the judge and his supporters in the court after hearing of the decision. “In the past when the appeals did not succeed people told me to stop prolonging false hope in Yong. Today I am happy that hope has spoken in a magnanimous way. It has been a good day for humanity and Singapore,” Ravi added.  

Although Singaporean judges now can exercise some discretion with respect to drug crimes, the state has no intention of abolishing the death penalty altogether. According to official statistics, no one was put to death last year, although four were executed in 2011. Nonetheless, Amnesty is calling for Singapore to continue enacting more reforms. “It is now up to the Singapore authorities to build on today’s ruling and start a genuine debate on the death penalty, with the view to its eventual abolition. Hopefully other commutations will follow and the moratorium on executions established in 2012 will be extended indefinitely. Singapore should put an end to mandatory death sentences for drug crimes once and for all,” said Rife.