More flexibility will be given to Singapore courts when it comes to the sentencing of some crimes that carry a mandatory death penalty.
In a parliamentary sitting on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that the law will be changed so courts will have discretion to sentence some people convicted of drug-related and murder offences to the lighter penalty of life imprisonment with caning.
Teo maintained that all trafficking and manufacturing crimes will still be given the mandatory death penalty for kingpins and organisers of syndicates.
The exception comes however, when two specific, tightly-defined conditions are met.
One, the trafficker only played the role of courier and was not involved in any other part of the distribution process.
Two, the courier cooperates with the Central Narcotics Bureau in its investigation and substantially assists in dismantling the syndicates or has a mental disability that prevents the accused from appreciating the gravity of his crime.
Also, penalties for repeat traffickers will increase, and new offences will be introduced for those who sell to vulnerable groups and those who hold drug parties.
Teo said that Singapore has to “adapt our strategy as drug trafficking syndicates change how they operate”. He noted that getting couriers to cooperate substantively will lead to the dismantling of syndicates or the arrest or prosecution of syndicate members.
The mandatory death penalty will also be removed for crimes of murder committed under penal code sections 300(b), (c) and (d), but will still stand under 300(a).
Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam added that certain types of homicide cases will no longer result in the mandatory death penalty.
Prosecutorial discretion, however, will still lie with the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC), said Teo.
Teo told parliament that there are currently 35 convicts on death row, of which 28 are for drug-related offences and seven for murder.
The changes will be closely monitored by the government. Teo said, "If the situation worsens, we will consider tightening the provisions, or making other changes.”
Shanmugam said once the bill passes, defence counsel for the 35 death row convicts will be briefed on the new conditions and amendments.
Andrew Loh, founder of publichouse.sg, applauded the move. “I feel it is a step forward but we'll have to look at the details and the implications of the changes,” he said. “I'm glad to note, however, that the government has considered, apparently, the views from the activists who've been fighting for changes for many years now.”
Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME), is also in favour of the new changes.
“I support these changes but hope to see the complete abolition of the death penalty. I also hope to see more social workers, and not just civil society activists speak out against the death penalty since respect for life and the inherent worth and dignity of people is a fundamental principle in the profession.”
Priscilla Chia, co-founder of We Believe In Second Chances blog, which has been campaigning against the mandatory death penalty, said that the new changes came as an “unexpected surprise”.
While she is happy with the changes, Chia pointed out one area of concern – the definition of “substantial cooporation” with the police force.
“From the parliamentary sittings, it seems to hinge on the fact that ‘substantial cooporation’ means concrete results. Basically, it leads to the arrest or the prosecution of the syndicate members. My hope is that they don’t peg the standard too high because for couriers – in the hierarchy of the drug syndicate, it is unlikely that they have any information of all these big fishes that the government is trying to catch,” she said.
Some members of the public, however, were against the government’s proposed move to change the mandatory death penalty.
Facebook user Louis Loh cautioned, “Economically, it means using tax money to feed a murderer for life. With more foreigners flooding to our shores, this is relaxing the rules for more criminals to take murder lightly. Once we open the gate for loosening capital punishment, Singapore will be a more dangerous place to be in.”
Another user, Denise C Collinson, said, “So, allow these drug traffickers to destroy the lives of our kids? Allow a premeditated murderer to enjoy what's left of his life after imprisonment? If it involved your kids of which the drugs were supplied to or even murdered, believe me, you wouldn't feel the same.”
-- Additional reporting by Jeanette Tan
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