Singapore court upholds death sentence of man with learning disabilities


Show caption Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was arrested in 2009 for attempting to smuggle 43g of heroin – about three tablespoons – into Singapore. Photograph: Fazry Ismail/EPA Singapore Singapore court upholds death sentence of man with learning disabilities Outcry over drug smuggling case of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who has IQ of 69 and could be executed in days Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok Tue 29 Mar 2022 11.20 BST Share on Facebook

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A man with learning disabilities who has spent more than a decade on death row could face execution within days after Singapore’s top court dismissed his last-ditch appeal, in a case that has drawn global condemnation.

Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national, was arrested in 2009 for attempting to smuggle 43g of heroin – about three tablespoons – into Singapore.

Nagaenthran, who was 21 at the time of his arrest, has said he was coerced into carrying the package, which was strapped to his thigh, and did not know its contents at the time.

His case has provoked an outcry globally. UN experts have said the sentence is not only disproportionate for drug trafficking, and therefore illegal under international law, but also that there are concerns that accommodations were not made for his disabilities.

Campaigners say that Nagaenthran has an IQ of 69, a level recognised as indicating a learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

His family have described him as vulnerable, timid and easily led, and warn that his mental condition has deteriorated further after he has spent about a third of his life in prison.

In a letter to Singapore’s president, Halimah Yacob, in December, Nagaenthran’s mother, Panchalai Supermaniam, said he could not sustain eye contact, was not speaking in full sentences and was at times incoherent, appearing not to fully understand his situation. He would talk about going home and eating her home-cooked food, she said, adding that she feared he did not realise that “execution” meant he would die.

Sarmila Dharmalingam, elder sister of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, says he does not understand what is happening. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Nagaenthran was originally scheduled to be hanged in November, but the execution was stayed due to his right to appeal. His appeal was then adjourned after he tested positive for Covid.

His sister Sarmila Dharmalingam told the Guardian she was angry and fearful for her brother. “We are very disappointed, we are really, very disappointed,” she said.

“Just give a second chance to my brother to live a life. Everybody [makes] mistakes. We must give them a chance to realise their mistakes,” she said, adding her brother had already spent 13 years in prison away from his family.

In court on Tuesday, Nagaenthran called out “pray for me”, her brother, who attended the hearing, told her.

Several international rights groups, as well as the EU’s delegation to Singapore, and the British billionaire Richard Branson, a critic of the death penalty, have called for the sentence to be halted. The Malaysian prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, last year wrote to Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, to ask for leniency in his case. An online petition in support of Nagaenthran has attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

Transformative Justice Collective, a Singaporean campaign group seeking reform of the criminal justice system and which has supported Nagaenthran, said it was “profoundly disappointed” with the decision of the court of appeal on Tuesday.

Nagaenthran’s lawyers had argued that executing someone with mental disabilities was a violation against international law. However, their case was rejected as baseless and an abuse of the court that sought to delay the sentence.

Nagaenthran had been “afforded due process” Singapore’s chief justice, Sundaresh Menon, said.

M Ravi, a human rights lawyer who has represented Nagaenthran, said the execution could take place in days.

Singapore, which has some of the world’s most severe drugs laws, has not carried out any executions since 2019, as continuing court applications have forced the authorities to pause proceedings. However, death penalty sentences have continued to be handed down throughout the pandemic, even over Zoom hearings. Families of those on death row fear the authorities are pushing to clear a backlog of cases.

Maya Foa, the director of the anti-death penalty campaign organisation Reprieve, said she was “extremely concerned about rushed hearings and decisions in this case”.

“Nagaenthran should be protected from the death penalty because of his intellectual disability. The heart-wrenching fact that he believes he is going home to his family and talks about sharing home-cooked meals with them shows that he does not fully understand he faces execution and lacks the mental competency to be executed.”

His family has said that, under international guidelines, accommodations should be granted to people with disabilities, such as allowing them to be accompanied by family at all stages of the process, but that this has not been the case. The family was not informed of Nagaenthran’s arrest until about a week later.

Singapore’s government claims its severe drugs laws, including the death penalty, are the most effective deterrent against crime.