A Singaporean man convicted of trying to traffic around 2.2 pounds of cannabis was executed on Wednesday, a sentence lambasted by rights groups and campaigners for its severity at a time when many other nations, including neighboring countries, have adopted a more lenient approach towards drugs and capital punishment.
While cannabis has been legalized in a growing number of nations worldwide, Singapore maintains some of the world’s harshest drug laws and its government remains adamant that capital punishment works to deter drug traffickers and must remain in place to maintain public safety.
Tangaraju Suppiah, a 46-year-old Singaporean, was put to death on Wednesday in Changi Prison, Singapore Prison Service said in a brief statement.
His sister Leelavathy Suppiah told CNN that her brother had been hanged and that the family had received a death certificate. It was Singapore’s first execution in six months.
In the days leading up to Tangaraju being sent to the gallows, family members and activists made public appeals for clemency and questioned the safety of his conviction. The European Union’s office in the city state and a United Nations’ rights office had also called for Singapore not to carry out his hanging.
Tangaraju was sentenced to death in 2018 for “abetting the trafficking of more than one kilogram of cannabis (1,017.9 grams),” according to a statement from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB). The court found he was in phone communication with two other men caught trying to smuggle cannabis into Singapore.
Previous appeals against his conviction and death sentence were dismissed by the courts in 2019 while petitions for presidential clemency were also unsuccessful, CNB added.
“Tangaraju was accorded full due process under the law and had access to legal counsel throughout the process,” CNB’s statement said while describing capital punishment as “part of Singapore’s comprehensive harm prevention strategy.”
Family members and rights groups who took up Tangaraju’s cause rejected the government’s claims and detailed why they believed his death sentence conviction was unsafe.
“Tangaraju’s conviction relied mainly on statements from his police interrogation – taken without a lawyer and interpreter present – and the testimony of his two co-accused, one of which had his charges dismissed,” Amnesty International said.
“In countries that have not yet abolished this punishment, international safeguards require that the death penalty be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts – and after a legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial,” Amnesty added.
Tangaraju’s sister Leelavathy spoke of her brother’s anguish and determination before his death sentence was carried out.
“Even from inside prison, he wanted to fight for his innocence,” she told CNN. “He believed that there would be a fair trial and wanted to prove his innocence – every step of the way.”
The Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), a local abolitionist movement, highlighted what they said were “serious problems” with evidence used to convict Tangaraju, describing it as “shockingly thin.”
“The case against Tangaraju is largely circumstantial and based on inferences,” TJC said in a series of statements.
“He never touched the cannabis he was accused of attempting to traffic. He was tied to the offense by two phone numbers found on the mobile phones of two men arrested by the CNB – one of which had been used to coordinate the cannabis delivery.”
“Tangaraju was already in remand for a separate offense by the time he was linked to this case – and his mobile phones were never recovered for analysis,” the group added.
Last year Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis following years of campaigning by activists on the ground.
Meanwhile Malaysia, Singapore’s closest neighbor, passed sweeping legal reforms earlier this month to remove the mandatory death penalty and trimmed the number of offenses, including drug crimes, punishable by death – a move welcomed by rights defenders.
“It’s particularly outrageous that Tangaraju was arrested, convicted and executed for a cannabis related offense when much of the world is moving forward with cannabis legalization based on medical assessments,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
“Putting him to death also shows just how far Singapore has fallen behind Malaysia – its leaders like to claim that their country is more modern and developed but in the case of criminal justice and the death penalty, Singapore is clearly the laggard,” Robertson added.
“Once again, Singapore shows how completely out of step they are with the basic concepts of human rights, proportionality in criminal punishments and justice,” Robertson said.
But the Singapore government has continued to resist calls for reform, carrying out eleven executions last year alone, all for drug related trafficking offenses.
Under the law, anyone caught trafficking, importing or exporting certain quantities of illegal drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine or cannabis products receives the mandatory death sentence.
“Singapore adopts a zero-tolerance stance against drugs and applies a multi-pronged approach to combat drugs,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement responding to international criticism of Tangaraju’s execution.
“The death penalty is an essential component of Singapore’s criminal justice system and has been effective in keeping Singapore safe and secure.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs also rejected the criticisms made by rights groups, arguing the case against Tangaraju had been “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” and that the evidence “clearly showed that he was the person coordinating the delivery of drugs, for the purpose of trafficking.”
The ministry’s statement was published in response to overseas criticism of Tangaraju’s imminent execution, including from British billionaire Richard Branson, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.
“Killing people for allegedly smuggling cannabis is particularly cruel and misguided, given that more countries are now introducing sensible drug policy by decriminalizing and regulating both medicinal and recreational cannabis,” Branson wrote on a blog on his company’s website.
Australian lawmaker Graham Perrett also said Tangaraju’s execution “violated international law standards.” “Imagine being hanged by the neck until you are dead because of a bit of weed,” Perrett, a member of the Labor Party, wrote on Facebook.
“As is the case for many people currently on death row in Singapore, Tangaraju was forced to represent himself to seek a review of the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold his conviction. Singapore has a strong reputation as a rule of law country so this concerning omission is not normal,” Perrett added.
The European Union’s delegation to Singapore also called on authorities to halt the execution.
“The EU and our countries strongly oppose the use of capital punishment at all times and in all circumstances, which can never be justified – and advocate for Singapore to adopt a moratorium on all executions as a positive first step towards its abolition,” the block said in a statement.
The UN’s rights office said it had “concerns around due process and respect for fair trial guarantees”.
“The death penalty is still being used in a small number of countries, largely because of the myth that it deters crime. Increasing evidence, however, shows it is ineffective as a deterrent,” spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement.