The Singapore parliament has passed legal reforms abolishing mandatory death sentences in some drug trafficking and murder cases, giving fresh hope to dozens of inmates awaiting execution.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said parliament had formally approved amendments enabling judges to commute death sentences to life imprisonment under certain conditions.
Human rights groups have called for the abolition of capital punishment -- carried out by hanging since British colonial rule -- but the government says death sentences for the most serious cases will remain as a deterrent.
"We're glad that they've done this. It breaks the lockstep mentality of the government of Singapore to favour the mandatory death penalty," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said.
"But this is just the first step in a long journey and there needs to be a lot more done before Singapore can say that it is a rights-respecting government," he told AFP.
Before the reforms, judges had no choice but to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of murder or trafficking in drugs above specific volumes.
Judges now have discretion to impose life imprisonment on a person convicted of murder if that individual "is not found to have intended to cause death", the AGC said.
For drugs offences, courts can impose a life term for a drug courier who has cooperated with authorities in a "substantive way" or who is "suffering from such an abnormality of mind that it substantially impaired his mental responsibility for committing the offence".
The AGC, which oversees all criminal prosecutions, said it will meet with the lawyers of 34 people facing execution for murder and drugs offences, who can now apply to be re-sentenced.
Defence lawyers will also be invited to find out if their clients would like to help the Central Narcotics Bureau fight trafficking or undergo psychiatric tests in support of such applications.
On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rejected calls to abolish the death penalty -- also applicable to kidnapping and firearms offences -- saying it was still necessary to deter serious crimes.
Robertson of Human Rights Watch noted that despite the amendments, the convict's fate would still depend on the public prosecutor's certification that he had cooperated substantively.
"So it's not like they're handing these cases over to the judges without some strings attached," he said. "And it's not clear at all what constitutes substantive cooperation."
Subhas Anandan, one of Singapore's top criminal lawyers, also welcomed the amendments.
"We are not against the death sentence per se, but we were against the mandatory death sentence. We think that in certain cases, the judges should be given the discretion of death or life imprisonment," he told AFP.
Relatives of death-row inmates drew fresh hope from the changes.
The family of Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian convicted in 2008 at the age of 19 for trafficking heroin, was hopeful the reforms would save him from the gallows.
"I'm very optimistic, I have hope. He's just a drug courier who has been used," his brother Yong Yun Leong told AFP.