Singapore’s pre-execution photos seek to soften a policy activists say doesn’t work

ARIF KARTONO / AFP / Getty Images

ARIF KARTONO / AFP / Getty Images

Nazira Lajim Hertslet can’t help but spring from the photos of her brother Naziri.

“He doesn’t look that tall and that handsome,” she said of a series of photos of her 64-year-old grandfather dressed in casual clothing.

She smiles in a photo, standing against a white floral curtain and it even looks playful in some shots. But this was not a happy occasion.

These were the last photos taken of Naziri Bin Lajim before him was executed in Singapore on drug charges in July.

Arrested in 2012 and convicted of trafficking 33.89 grams of heroin, Naziri was hanged at dawn … the fifth of 11 inmates sent to the city-state gallows so far this year for drug offenses. The most recent execution was that of an unnamed 55-year-old Singaporean man who was hanged in early October, according to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).

In a statement to CNN, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) said it provided prisoners with “the opportunity to be photographed in clothes that are sent by their families “.

“This is done to allow family members to have recent photographs of the loved one,” said SPS. “The decision whether to take the photographs rests solely with the prisoner.”

Nazira said the gesture brought her comfort and relief in a system that inflicted “so much pain and cruelty”.

“He seems so happy and strong, the strength he must have taken from him in those shots.”

Singapore strongly believes that the death penalty works to discourage drug traffickers and must remain in place to maintain public safety. Three reports commissioned and released this week by the Ministry of Interior (MHA) detail “tremendous support among Singaporeans” for the use of the death penalty for serious crimes such as drug trafficking. In a study that surveyed 2,000 local respondents, more than 70 percent believed executions were more effective than life sentences in deterring drug traffickers, the government said.

But even as authorities double death sentences and executions, activists have noted the growing scale and frequency of recent drug arrests.

On the same day the local man was executed, police arrested six people in two raids that yielded 104 grams of ketamine, 10 LSD stamps and 2.28 kilograms of cannabis – enough cannabis to “fuel the addiction. about 330 abusers for a week, “read a statement from the CNB.

Rocky Howe, a member of the local abolitionist movement Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), said there was a notable increase in death sentences this year, at least 10 for drug trafficking, based on his calculations.

“For every life lost, there will be a new trafficker,” Howe added. “We have to stop and ask ourselves if the death penalty is really working in deterring people from drug trafficking in Singapore, as the government says.”

Under the Singapore Misuse of Drugs Act, anyone caught trafficking in or importing or exporting certain quantities of illegal drugs receives the mandatory death sentence.

The death sentence applies to traffickers who transport methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine or cannabis products above a certain threshold. In Singapore, the heroin threshold is 15 grams or more. By comparison, first-time offenders caught trafficking 100 to 999 grams of heroin face prison sentences of between 5 and 40 years under US federal sanctions for human trafficking. Longer and harder penalties potentially apply if the trade results in death or serious injury.

Singapore ruling party ministers they say the threat of capital punishment is necessary to prevent the city-state from being flooded with drugs in a region that is a global hotspot for drug trafficking.

Seizures and methamphetamine use declined during that year, the APAIC reported, but heroin seizures hit a record high.

“Drug demand indicators also point to increasing heroin use, with experts perception seeing an increase in drug use for the first time since 2012,” the briefing note said. “The number of drug treatment hospitalizations for heroin has also increased, surpassing 500 for the first time since 2013.”

Despite the execution of the death penalty, large Cannabis seizures are also regularly reported in Singapore. A handful of record-breaking loot has made headlines in recent years – the largest amounting to more than two million Singapore dollars ($ 1.7 million).

In a five-page statement to CNN that linked to government-backed reports and statistics, the MHA of Singapore said it would be “erroneous to conclude that drug offenses indicate that trafficking rates are continuing to rise despite the the death penalty is in force “.

“On the contrary, without the death sentence, drug traffickers would be more daring and would traffick larger quantities of drugs in Singapore,” the statement read.

Until recently, Singapore and some of its closest neighbors were united in their tough approach to the war on drugs.

The executions are a state secret, but in a rare report by the Ministry of Public Security released and published in state media in 2017, it was revealed that 429 executions were carried out in prisons across the country between 2013 and 2016. Current death numbers lines are also unknown, rights groups say.

After a hiatus in 2021, military-run Myanmar also carried out executions this year – that of two prominent democracy activists who were executed in July after being accused by the junta of “terrorist acts” – arousing fear and concern for those who are left behind bars.

But other countries have taken different paths.

Malaysia, Singapore’s closest neighbor, removed drug trafficking from its list of crimes punishable by death in 2018 and announced initiatives to abolish the mandatory death penalty in June.

Indonesia, which like Singapore has long since executed those convicted of crimes such as terrorism, murder and drug trafficking, is now considering plans to introduce a “probationary death penalty,” which officials say will authorize judges to issue death sentences with 10-year probationary periods if a defendant “shows remorse” or proves that he did not play a major role in the crime he committed.

However, Singapore is unlikely to move on its drug approach, which has been instrumental in safeguarding its global reputation as a thriving financial and travel hub, local experts say.

“Each country has the right to choose how to deal with the most serious crimes, including whether (or not) incurring the death penalty,” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. Tan, who once served as an appointed member of the Singapore parliament, said the courts did not “pass the death sentences lightly.”

“The government’s uncompromising stance towards drugs stems from a longstanding commitment to law and order,” Tan said.

And because Singapore is a key transportation hub close to many regional drug production centers, Tan said it is “unlikely to follow in the footsteps of other countries in liberalizing drug policies.” “The Singapore government believes the drug situation will deteriorate rapidly if it loosens its position as other countries have done in recent years,” she said.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia, told CNN in May that if Southeast Asian countries want to be on top of drug trafficking, they need to change their approach to the problem.

Governments should treat drug use and addiction as health problems, not criminal matters, through “public health education, the provision of mental health care, assistance and support, rehabilitation and reintegration programs”, he has declared.

Furthermore, there is no indication that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to drug trafficking, ”Douglas added.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International noted that “relatively small amounts of drugs” were usually reported in Singapore sentencing cases, indicating that the convicted traffickers were those who held “low-ranking positions in drug trafficking circuits.”

This raises the question of whether their deaths would “fundamentally disrupt drug trafficking,” the spokesman said.

But in its statement to CNN, Singapore’s MHA said “first-hand accounts” showed how many traffickers were deliberately trafficking below the legal threshold.

“Drug traffickers know about the death penalty, but they trade for money,” the ministry said. “The traffickers make a cynical calculation of trafficking drugs for personal gain, ignoring the thousands of lives they would destroy.”

Three months have passed since the end of Naziri’s life.

Her sister has some of her photos saved on her phone. “I look at the photos every time I miss them,” she said.

“We didn’t ask for them to be picked up, but it’s still a nice gesture,” he said, adding that the family had been asked to provide clothes.

“I don’t know how this practice came about, why the photos were taken, but it shows how (disconnected) the prison and judicial system are,” he said.

“Because in the end they killed my brother.”

The CNN thread
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CNN’s Jake Kwon contributed to this report.

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