Liberal Solidarity Week

Arbitrary application of death penalty continues in S’pore

by Teoh Tian Jing

Singapore flagThe Straits Times reported on 3rd Sept 2010 that a Singaporean drug syndicate leader, who had been arrested trafficking over 60g of heroin, was given the death sentence while his girlfriend from Thailand escaped the noose, even though both faced the same charge.

Phuthita Somchit, 35, defend herself by claiming not to know that the content was heroin, even though she knew it was drugs. But she had taken a much more active role in drug trafficking, as she would take orders over the phone, pack drugs and even recruit runners to deliver them.

Compare this to the case of Amara Tochi, who was hanged in 2007 after he put up the defence of not knowing bag of capsules contained heroin, but medicinal herbs from Africa. In sentencing Tochi, the judged noted “Consequently, even if he may not have actual knowledge that he was carrying diamorphine, his ignorance did not exculpate him because it is well established that ignorance is a defence only when there is no reason for suspicion and no right and opportunity of examination.”

This is not the first time that a female was given a lesser sentence that what the law stipulated for drug trafficking. In Singapore’s context, trafficking more than 15g of heroin meant mandatory death.

The High Court must have considered the risk of political fallout between Thailand and Singapore if one of their nationals were hanged in Singapore, but most importantly, hanging a foreign lady and a mother of two meant only bad publicity for the country and unwanted attention to the growing anti death penalty sentiments on the ground.

Therefore Phuthita Somchit was only sentenced to 9 years imprisonment, even though her original charge would have most certainly meant that she could not possibly escape the gallows.

Other cases worth noting include German teenager Julia Bohl, whose government intervened and saved her from almost certain execution for trafficking over 600g of marijuana, and Filipino domestic worker Flor Contemplacion who was sentenced to hang in 1995, and the political ruckus in Philippines after her execution lead to an unwritten rule that domestic workers in Singapore would escape the death penalty even if their crime mandates judicial punishment by hanging. This is evident in the case of domestic workers Guen Aguilar, who was charged for murder of her friend and 18 years old Indonesian Juminem, who killed her Singaporean employer.

This selective application of the death penalty must stop and the only way to do it fairly would be to completely abolish the death sentence. Otherwise Singapore will continue to face the situation where one’s background or gender decides whether he or she will be executed, and not based on the law being applied fairly to suit the crime.

Worse still, the risk of executing an innocent person is something that the Singapore courts have not been able to prevent, as put by former Chief Justice Yong Pung How. When questioned by human rights lawyer M. Ravi whether an innocent man could be hanged due to procedure, Yong Pung How’s answer was a chilling “yes”.

Some of these above-mentioned cases are expounded in the book “Once a Jolly Hangman”, whose author, Alan Shadrake, was arrested and charged for suggesting that the Singapore judiciary was not independent because of how selective the death sentence is meted out, especially on certain politically sensitive cases. Was Alan Shadrake arrested for speaking the truth or was it contempt of court? Read the book and be the judge.

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