Nazira Bin Lajim Hertslet was on her way to work Friday when she received a phone call from a prison official, informing her of the news she and her family had been dreading for so long. That same day, two police officers personally handed a letter to her younger brother at his home that delivered the same heart-shattering message.
“Please be informed that the death sentence passed on your brother, Nazeri Bin Lajim, will be carried out on 22 July 2022 (Friday),” the letter read.
They knew that this day was coming, the day that the Singaporean government would hang their brother, 64-year-old Nazeri Bin Lajim. But they had expected at least three weeks’ notice before it happened. Instead, they were only given one.
We met Nazira, Nazeri’s younger sister, on Monday morning at her brightly lit apartment. Her demeanor was sullen and reserved as we set up our equipment for the interview. Every minute she spent with us was a minute she didn’t with Nazeri, who she was in a rush to see at Changi Prison once we were done. But she still wanted to take the time to speak out on her brother’s story and how the death penalty has impacted their family.
Asked how she felt when she received the phone call informing her of her brother’s impending execution, Nazira said, “I wailed and cried. I shouted. I really cried so much. I was on my way to work and I came back home. I had a good cry because I didn’t expect it to happen so fast.”
“It’s as though they really want to really hang my brother as soon as possible, so I was shaken.”
Two different sentences
Nazeri was arrested on April 13, 2012 for trafficking at least 35.41 grams of heroin. Under Singapore’s harsh drug laws, the death sentence is mandatory for anybody found guilty of trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin.
Nazeri argued in court that he had only ordered one bundle of heroin from his supplier, Dominic Martin Fernandez, a young Malaysian in his 20s, but was delivered two bundles instead. He said that most of the heroin was meant for his personal consumption and that the amount he intended to sell was below the death penalty’s 15-gram threshold. He also argued that police coerced him to claim that he consumed less heroin than he actually did in his statement to support their argument that he intended to sell most of it.
But the judge rejected his defense and a later appeal was dismissed. Nazeri was sentenced to death on Sept. 21, 2017. Fernandez, on the other hand, was given a life sentence and 15 strokes of the cane.
The court ruled that Fernandez had only acted as a courier and that he had “rendered substantive assistance” to the narcotics agency, which is why he was not given the death sentence. But that makes little sense to Nazira, who cannot understand why Fernandez would get a lesser sentence when he was the one who supplied her brother with the drugs.
“I may not be a lawyer but as far as I’m concerned, both violated the law. In fact, the most punishable or most heavy punishment should be on the supplier because he doesn’t consume drugs. He supplied to my brother, my brother is an addict,” the 62-year-old property agent said.
Singaporean officials often repeat the narrative that the death penalty for drug traffickers is necessary to protect people whose lives and families would be destroyed by drug addiction. But Nazeri’s case and others like it complicate that narrative. He was himself a drug addict, one who spent much of his life going in and out of Singaporean prisons and rehabilitation programs. Nazira said none of that helped turn her brother’s life around but instead made him feel more desperate as he became increasingly stigmatized by society.
According to his sister, Nazeri’s drug problems stemmed from their rough and troubled childhood.
Their parents had 10 children. Their father had a well-paying job with the British army, but he died young, at the age of 45. Nazira believes the stroke that killed him was caused by the shock of him losing that job. With their primary breadwinner gone, the family struggled just to survive and have enough food for everyone to eat. The children were left to fend for themselves.
“We were like wild plants, no sense of direction, we just need to survive,” Nazira said.
Nazeri got hooked on drugs at the age of 14 and was in and out of prison every few years while their family “disintegrated” around him, Nazira recalled. While they were shocked by his heavy drug addiction, it was something they learned to live with as his siblings each had their own families to take care of and careers to attend to.
“We were all living our day-to-day lives trying to survive at the time. So to us, him being in and out of prison is something we had to accept as a way of life,” she said.
But then Nazeri was sentenced to death row.
“Even if he’s given a life sentence then I’m quite happy. At least I can see my brother every now and then. But he was given a hanging which has shaken me, shaken me and upsets me,” she said.
Nazeri went in and out of prison and rehabilitation programs at least five times in a span of a decade. But those programs were unable to help him as he was a heavy consumer, Nazira said.
“He is a weak person. To a certain extent, it helps him but not for long,” she said, adding that he’s still her “best brother” who was just “easily influenced.”
Nazira has fought to save her brother’s life. She sent two emotionally charged emails to President Halimah Yacob and personally handed a letter to the Istana to ask her to grant Nazeri clemency and change his death sentence to life imprisonment.
But her pleas for mercy did not sway those who had the power to stop her brother’s execution. The letter she received in response only said that the state’s position “remains unchanged.”
When asked if she could speak directly to the people who prosecuted her brother, Nazira broke down.
“Don’t hang him!” she wailed tearfully. “I want my brother’s life back. At least be more humane to give a life sentence, not hanging. I believe that nobody can take one’s life, except God, I always believe that.”
Nazeri is one of at least 60 people currently on death row in Singapore, with the majority being men convicted of drug offenses.
Several have been sent to the gallows since March, when the government resumed executions after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. They include high-profile cases such as those of Malaysians Nagaenthran Dharmalingam and Abdul Kahar Othman, who were executed despite public protests and international condemnation.
In a statement, UN human rights experts urged Singapore to impose a moratorium on executions, saying there has been an “alarming acceleration in execution notices in the country” and that the death penalty was “incompatible with international human rights law.”
In the face of these criticisms, the Singaporean government has fiercely defended its use of the death penalty and shown little sign that it may soften its stance in the future. But other countries around the region are making moves towards abolishing the death penalty, which activists hope will put more pressure on Singapore as well. For example, the Malaysian government announced last month that they had agreed to abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty and leave sentencing up to the discretion of the courts. Indonesia has also had an unofficial moratorium on executions since 2016 after its last round of executions earned widespread international condemnation.
Death and deterrence
Singaporean officials say the public supports the country’s harsh drug laws. Citing the preliminary results of the most recent Ministry of Home Affairs survey, they say 66% of Singaporeans support the death penalty for drug traffickers and 80% believe it is an effective deterrent.
But Nazira, like many who oppose the death penalty, doubts this is true. Asked what she would say to people who believe that, she said, “Is there any proof to me that it is effective? Prove to me that it’s effective!”
The government points to evidence such as the reduction in drug trafficking cases after the mandatory death sentences was put in place and awareness among smugglers who said they limited the amount of narcotics they carried so as not to go over the death penalty limits.
Death penalty opponents argue that such data doesn’t prove the deterrent effect of the death penalty versus other punishments such as life sentences. They point to other countries in the region that also have the death penalty for drug traffickers but more severe drug problems, such as Indonesia, as well as countries that don’t employ the death penalty for trafficking but manage to still have very low drug crime rates, such as Japan and South Korea.
But aside from the death penalty’s effect on crime, most who oppose the death penalty believe it is morally wrong for a government to choose to take someone’s life, regardless of circumstances.
Asked how she wanted the world to remember her brother, Nazira said, “I want the world to remember my brother as a victim of this unfair law that our government has. He is the victim of unfairness.”
‘Going to a better place’
Nazira said the family has been allowed to visit Nazeri daily since they were notified about his upcoming execution and have been trying to see him as much as possible in his final days.
The family was previously only allowed a one-hour visit every week. Nazira, Nazeri’s ex-wife and his 24-year-old son made it a point to visit him at least twice a month. Relatives from overseas have also flown in to see Nazeri in his final days.
As the days count down, Nazira says her brother is keeping positive and the family is doing their best to comfort him and cheer him up even though it’s tough.
“I always tell him that you are going to a better place. Life here is so painful for you,” she said.