Death sentences on a decline in Malaysia


ON Tuesday, a 33-year-old Malaysian man facing the death penalty in Singapore will know if his life will be spared.

It’s a case that has drawn international attention, one that will see the Court of Appeal in Singapore deciding on the appeal by D. Nagaenthran, who was sentenced to death by hanging for smuggling 42.72g of heroin into the island state.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and others, including United Nations experts, have asked for leniency for Nagaenthran as he is said to be intellectually disabled.

With the coming verdict, the case has re-ignited debate on the death penalty here. Malaysia still retains the death sentence for serious crimes, and some believe it should be done away with entirely while others feel the punishment is still relevant in our society.

Either way, fewer people have been sent to the gallows by courts nationwide over the past four years.

A total of 478 people were handed the death sentence in Malaysian courts from 2018 until today. But for every year since 2018, the numbers have been dropping, according to data from the judiciary made available to Sunday Star.

“From 172 people given the death penalty in 2018, this figure has been steadily falling to 118 in 2019, 112 in 2020 and 76 so far this year,” read the judiciary’s response.

This is based on data from the offices of the Registrar of the High Court of Malaya and Registrar of the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak.

Most who were put on death row were Malaysians, making up 77.8% (372) of the 478 people convicted, while 22.2% (106) were foreigners.

In Peninsular Malaysia, drug trafficking topped the list of offences involving the death penalty, making up 67% of the court cases, followed by murder at 30%, possession of firearms at 2% and kidnapping at 1%.

A similar trend was seen in Sabah – most were handed the sentence for drug trafficking (70%) followed by murder (30%).

However, in Sarawak, most death sentences were for murder (61.1%), while the remainder involved drug trafficking cases (38.9%).

Calls for abolishment

In Nagaenthran’s case, his lawyers claim he has an IQ of 69 and as such, should not be hanged because he is not of sound mind.

But the court ruled that Nagaen-thran knew what he was doing.

While Malaysia urged against the execution, Padang Rengas MP Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz had called for a review of death sentences for drug traffickers here as he felt it was “illogical” for Malaysia to appeal for clemency from other countries when we still have the punishment here.

At present, the death sentence can be applied for 33 offences in Malaysia, including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping, possession of firearms and terrorism.

In 2018, Malaysia amended the Dangerous Drugs Act to allow judges the discretion to sentence drug traffickers to life imprisonment and whipping of not less than 15 strokes instead of the death penalty.

One of the conditions to allow such discretion is that the accused must have “assisted an enforcement agency in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Malaysia”.

However, Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture spokesperson Charles Hector says this amendment is “defective” as the required condition is impossible to meet for some.

“This is especially so for those who are innocent in the first place,” he says.

Hector says the amendment is a positive sign of the desire to provide alternatives, but the law needs to be reformed.

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“The amendment is inadequate as it only provides for two sentences – death or life imprisonment and whipping.

“This is unjust, as a person convicted of trafficking 51g of syabu should receive a lesser punishment compared with someone convicted of trafficking 1kg of drugs,” he says.

But above all, Hector urges the government to abolish mandatory death penalty and mandatory life imprisonment and leave it to judges familiar with the facts of the case to impose a just sentence.

“For offences that did not directly result in the death of anyone, no death penalty should be imposed.

“The death penalty is also not in the best interest of any children of the convicted,” he says.

Amnesty International Malaysia (AIM) opposes the death penalty in all cases as it is a violation of the right to life.

“With the case of Nagaenthran, the public can see just how brutal the death penalty system is.

“Despite having an intellectual disability, the Singapore government is insistent on executing him.

“Family members who visited him recently have described how his mental health has deteriorated to the point of doubting whether he understands that he is close to being executed.

“This is why even as we try to halt Nagaenthran’s execution in Singapore, we urge the Malaysian government to continue efforts to fully repeal the death penalty here,” it says.

AIM also calls on Malaysia to continue observing the moratorium on all executions, implemented in July 2018, until the death penalty is fully abolished.

“The government should also mandate a judicial body to review all cases where people have been sentenced to death, with a view to commuting the death sentences,” it says.

Any fair criminal justice system also needs to be conscious of the impact of class, gender, race and other factors in its considerations, AIM adds.

Keeping the sentence

However, voices supporting the death penalty in Malaysia say the sentence is still needed in our society and should be kept, especially for severe crimes.

Malaysian Syariah Lawyers Association deputy president Moeis Basri says the penalty is generally still relevant to this country.

“For drug-related offences, I may agree to do away with the death sentence but I still support the death sentence for murder.

“I would also agree if there is a suggestion to impose capital punishment for continuous corruption,” he says.

When it comes to a serious crime like murder, Moeis says there is a direct and intentional act of taking somebody’s life.

“As such, the same consequences should be faced by the murderer.

“For continuous corruption and corruption cases on a big scale, the penalty should also be meted out as it is a serious disease for any country and causes damages to all citizens,” he says.

Former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar also believes the death penalty should be maintained to keep drug trafficking in check, as such cases are still rampant.

“With the capital punishment, we will be able to prevent Malaysia ending up in situations like in Latin American countries, where drug cartels are in control,” he says.

Khalid says when it comes to handing down the death sentence, he agrees that judges should be given the discretion in having the choice to impose life imprisonment as well.

Last year, it was reported that most Malaysians also wanted the death penalty to be retained, as they believed it would be a deterrent.

Most respondents also believed in retribution for the victims and their families, based on a survey by research organisation The Centre, which polled 500 Malaysians aged 18 and above.

Based on their findings, most, or 60%, believed that capital punishment is still needed in society, while another 31% were neutral about it.

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