Counsel hold out hope for youth on death row in Singapore


A Malaysian youth is languishing in death row awaiting hanging after Singapore’s judiciary found him guilty of possessing heroin weighing 47 grams, lawyers fighting to save him tell IPS.

Lawyers, human rights activists and chapters of leading human rights advocate Amnesty International in both countries are working to save Yong from execution.

“We will mobilise public opinion against the death penalty, against the bid to kill Yong for such a paltry offence,” said human rights lawyer N. Surendran. “If need be, we will protest outside the Singapore mission here and organise boycott of anything that is clearly Singapore,” he said, adding the aim is to pressure Singapore to be “humane.”

Yong Vui Kong, 21, a Malaysian from the South-east Asian country’s eastern state of Sabah, was only 19 years old when he was sentenced by the Singapore High Court to death in November 2008.

Yong and his family of nine were abandoned by his father when he was only three years old. As a young boy he left his village in Sandakan, Sabah for the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur and later Singapore.

Like hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by rural-urban migration, Yong was chasing the same dream – work hard, save and strike it rich. But his life took an unexpected spiral.

His clemency petition for the death sentence to be commuted to life was rejected and he was scheduled for hanging on Dec. 4, 2009. But he was saved by an unprecedented stay granted by the Singapore Court 24 hours before the hanging.

His lawyer, Ravi Ramasamy, a prominent human rights champion in Singpore, rushed to court and argued that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional, citing numerous decisions of famous judges in Commonwealth countries, including India.

The mandatory element of the death penalty removes discretion from judges and grants it to the state, and this is unconstitutional, Madasamy told IPS in an interview in this capital. “The state is the judge and executioner.”

“The power to hang has been given to the state by taking away the discretion from the judges. Mitigating circumstances are ignored,” said Malaysian Bar Council (MBC) president Ragunath Kesavan.

A higher court has overturned the stay and re-imposed the death sentence, and Yong is again facing the hangman’s noose.

Madasamy, who has battled the Singapore criminal justice system on numerous occasions, has only until about August this year to keep Yong alive.

“I have asked Yong, his mother and siblings to expect the worst because the system in Singapore is merciless,” Madasamy said. “They want to make a point and they might want to do it not by mercy but by hanging,” he added. “We are racing against time to safe Yong.”

It usually takes about three months between submission of a clemency petition and its rejection and immediate execution of the victim, said the lawyer.

Activists in Malaysia and Singapore have argued that even top lawyers in London are involved in challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty provision in Singapore.

“We are mobilising public opinion in Malaysia to show the inherent injustice in mandatory sentences. We want our parliament to repeal this provision from Malaysian laws,” said MBC’s Kesavan, urging Singaporeans to do likewise.

Both Singpore and Malaysia have mandatory death penalty for certain offences, particularly murder and possession of a certain amount of illegal drugs.

Both countries have hanged scores of people of different nationalities for drug possession, which is punishable by mandatory death by hanging, which human rights groups say is a primitive way of killing, because it causes agony and sufferings to its victims.

“Singapore has world-class facilities but not world-class humanism,” lawyer Surendran said, adding it was time the city-state showed its human side by giving Yong a chance to live. He has urged the Malaysian government to speak up for Yong by pressuring Singapore to grant clemency and commute the death sentence to life.

As Yong awaits his execution, he hears others being dragged from their cells to the execution chamber, crying, wailing and begging to be freed and to be forgiven, his family said.

Yong was 12 years old when he ran away from a “life of pain,” said his brother Yun Leong. At 15, he made his way to Kuala Lumpur, hoping to find a better job but faced discrimination because of his “rural” origins. He found work in a Chinese restaurant but was paid far less than his colleagues.

“He told us while work was hard and the pay was low, there was always ample food to eat,” Yun Leong said. “He was always looking for better-paying jobs.”

Later, a local gang recruited him to hawk pirated video compact discs or VCDs. From hawking he moved into “helping out” at collecting debts.

An unnamed ‘Big Brother’ came into his life for whom he felt compelled to do anything. According to friends and family, Yong soon started delivering small packets of heroin to people in the city. In May 2007 he was caught by Singapore police with 47.27 grams of heroin with him.

Lawyer Madasamy said his client has come to terms with his impending death. He has also embraced Buddhism, waking up early to meditate and seek advice from Buddhist monks, who visit him regularly, the counsel said.

Yong continues to hope for a miracle.

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