Singapore on Monday announced plans to ease the application of the death penalty in some murder and drugs cases but maintained that capital punishment, carried out by hanging, will remain.
The proposed changes, unveiled in parliament by senior cabinet ministers, follow a year-long review of the mandatory death penalties for murder and drug trafficking, which critics say are too harsh and sweeping.
Executions have been suspended since July 2011 as part of the review and convicts on death row would be allowed to seek resentencing under draft legislation expected to be ready later this year.
Officials say there are currently 35 inmates awaiting execution in Singapore, which prides itself on its low crime rate despite condemnation of its capital punishment system by local and international rights groups.
Among the inmates is Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian drug courier convicted of trafficking 47 grams (1.65 ounces) of heroin in 2007.
From 2004 to 2010 there were a total of 26 Singaporeans and 12 foreigners executed in Singapore, according to official figures.
Hanging, which dates back to British colonial rule, is the only method of execution used in the nation.
"Singaporeans understand that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for very serious offences, and largely support it," said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also home affairs minister.
He said the review was carried out "to ensure that our laws keep pace with the evolving operational landscape and societal changes".
Under the planned legislation, low-level drug couriers who provide "substantive" cooperation to police can be sentenced to life imprisonment at the discretion of trial courts, Teo said.
People who commit murder with "no outright intention to kill" will also qualify for the lesser punishment, Law Minister K. Shanmugam added.
Judges currently have no choice but to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of murder and trafficking in drugs above specific amounts.
Under current laws, anyone found to be trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine, 250 grams of methamphetamine or 500 grams of cannabis will be sentenced to death upon conviction.
The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) holds 81 of the 87 seats in parliament, enabling it to pass legislation without any obstruction.
"Capital punishment will continue to remain an integral part of our criminal justice system," Shanmugam said.
"But justice can be tempered with mercy and where appropriate offenders should be given a second chance," the law minister added.
Human rights campaigners welcomed the government's move but said it did not go far enough.
"We applaud the Singapore Government for taking this important first step," said Braema Mathi, president of local human rights group MARUAH.
"But this is only a small step in the right direction, as the mandatory death penalty is fundamentally troubling, and it continues to be applied to a substantial number of criminal offences," she said in a statement.
The death penalty is still compulsory for offences such as the illegal use of firearms as well as kidnapping with intent to murder.