This morning, Singapore carried out the execution of Tangaraju Suppiah, a 46-year-old Singaporean man who was convicted of conspiracy to traffick cannabis in 2017.
After news of his impending execution broke last week, local anti-death penalty activists did their best to raise awareness about troubling aspects of Tangaraju’s case in an attempt to have his hanging halted. International organisations including the United Nations joined in, urging Singapore to not go through with the execution.
But rather than respond to the UN or the Singaporeans fighting to save Tangaraju’s life, the Ministry of Home Affairs only released a press release specifically to rebut a blog post by British billionaire and death penalty abolitionist Richard Branson, who has been critical of Singapore’s death penalty several time in the past.
Earlier this week, Branson wrote about Tangaraju’s case and argued that he did not deserve to die based on the facts of his case.
He argued that “Singapore may be about to kill an innocent man” in the post on his personal blog, which listed a number of issues that local activists have highlighted about the case, including the fact that Tangaraju was “actually not anywhere near” the 1017.9g marijuana that he was convicted of conspiring to traffick; that he not being given a Tamil interpreter for his recorded statements after he requested; and also that he did not have a lawyer present during his questioning.
In the MHA press statement released yesterday, they start by “correcting” some points made by Branson and going into the specifics of the “drug trafficker’s” case.
The MHA took issue with Branson’s choice of words, stating that calling him an innocent man was “patently untrue” and asserted that he was the person “coordinating the delivery of drugs, for the purpose of trafficking” and that the High Court had found that “he was communicating with the two others and was the one coordinating the delivery and receipt of cannabis to himself, through the two others” – proving that he intended to traffic the narcotics in question.
What the press release doesn’t mention is that the phone that Tangaraju supposedly used to coordinate the drug deal was never found (Tangaraju claimed he lost it) so there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. If you read the court’s decision, you can also see that the text messages used to implicate him never mention Tangaraju’s name.
MHA’s statement goes on to say, “It is regrettable that Mr Branson, in wanting to argue his case, should resort to purporting to know more about the case than Singapore’s Courts, which had examined the case thoroughly and comprehensively over a period of more than three years.”
It adds, “He shows disrespect for Singapore’s judges and our criminal justice system with such allegations.”
“…respect Singaporeans’ choice”
The second half of the release continues to list the extent of Singapore’s zero-tolerance stance on drugs and the death penalty and cites a survey showing that 87% of Singaporeans believed that the death penalty deters people from trafficking substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore. The survey also found that 83% also believed the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in discouraging people from trafficking drugs into Singapore.
Activists have argues that those surveys results do not prove the effectiveness of the death penalty, but rather the govenment’s effectiveness in convincing its citizens that it is.
A different 2018 survey conducted by the National University of Singapore found that, when Singaporeans were presented with the details of typical cases where capital punishment would be legally required, few thought the death penalty should actually be applied in all instances, including drug trafficking cases. The researchers found that the Singaporean public was generally poorly informed about the death penalty, with 60 percent saying they knew “nothing or little about it” and 80 percent saying they rarely talked about the subject to others.
MHA also accused Branson of asserting falsehoods about Singapore’s “disproportionate use [of capital punishment] on minorities, an obsession with small-scale drug traffickers, and the widely reported harassment of human rights defenders and capital defence lawyers”.
Many death penalty opponents besides Branson have made these arguments about the systemic injustice of Singapore’s death penalty regime. Singapore refuses to disclose the racial makeup of its death row inmates but the majority of reported cases have been from minority groups.
It has been reported that Tangaraju had to represent himself in his final post-appeal legal attempts to avert his execution, as has been the case for many death row inmates since Singapore’s courts began giving lawyers who represented them in these motions heavy financial penalties for alleged “abuse of process”.
In a statement released last year by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) calling for Singapore to halt its executions, the NGO also called for an end to such fines on lawyers representing death row inmates. They argued, “The imposition of punitive cost orders has obstructed death-row inmates’ access to justice and effective remedies, their right to legal counsel — with several having had to represent themselves in court — and, in turn, their right to a fair trial and, ultimately, their right to life.”
MHA’s response to Branson concludes by saying that Branson is free to advocate his own beliefs but he should respect the choice of Singaporeans. Branson has yet to respond to MHA’s statement.
Branson’s criticism of Singapore’s spate of executions last year led to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) challenging him to a live television debate over their death penalty policies. Branson declined their offer, urging the government to engage with local activists instead.
Some observers argued that the Singaporean government’s debate challenge was meant to frame the issue as being about foreigners telling Singaporeans what’s best for them, making it an issue of nationalism rather than acknowledge the growing opposition to the death penalty among Singaporeans.
Singapore executed 11 people in 2022, all for non-violent drug-related offenses. The spate of executions led to a growing outcry from activists, both local and international, as well as multinational organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations, calling for the city-state to abolish its death penalty regime.
But the Singaporean government has vehemently defended the necessity of its death penalty policy against all criticism, arguing that it is essential to protecting its citizens from the scourge of drugs.
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