COVID-19 spreads through prison where Malaysian held on death row

Exterior of Changi Prison Complex. Photo: Google Street View
Exterior of Changi Prison Complex. Photo: Google Street View

Several inmates and staff at the Changi Prison Complex have tested positive for COVID-19 after a Malaysian death row inmate was confirmed to have the coronavirus while in court yesterday. 

The Singapore Prison Service, or SPS, told reporters late last night that Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was thought to be coronavirus-free after his antigen rapid test came back negative a day prior to his court appearance. But the 33-year-old’s polymerase chain reaction test, also taken Monday, was positive, it said. 

The convicted drug trafficker said to have an IQ of 69 was originally due to be hanged today, 11 years after he was sentenced to die for smuggling a small amount of heroin into Singapore. It is not clear how many other prisoners and prison staff have contracted the virus, but SPS said that they were all within “Institution A1,” one of 10 sections where prisoners, including Nagaenthran, are locked up in Changi. 

Nagaenthran, who is unvaccinated, has not shown any symptoms, SPS said, adding that the prisoner recently had contact with two infected prison staff. According to the prison service, it was Nagaenthran’s choice not to be inoculated, although 90% of prisoners have completed vaccination. 

Represented by lawyer M Ravi, the inmate appeared in the Court of Appeal yesterday for a brief moment in hope the apex judges would commute his sentence on the grounds of his mental disability. Appeal judges yesterday granted Nagaenthran a further stay of execution due to his illness.

Though less severe than in neighboring countries, the coronavirus outbreak remains at its worst level in Singapore since the pandemic began with thousands of new cases and dozens of new deaths reported each day involving mostly the elderly. A COVID-19 cluster emerged in Changi prison earlier this year that was traced to a chef, infecting 13 inmates who worked in the kitchen. The cluster was declared “closed” in July.

For the first time ever, the city also reported COVID-19 infections among animals yesterday. Four lions at the Singapore Zoo have taken ill.

His case drew global attention in recent days, mostly from anti-death penalty advocates, including from the European Union, Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, and campaigners in Malaysia. Petitions pleading for presidential pardon have been unsuccessful so far. 

Other stories:

‘Please don’t force them to bury him,’ families of condemned plea for Nagaenthran’s life

EU calls on Singapore to halt drug trafficker’s execution

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