Singapore court found Indian-origin drug trafficker isn’t suffering from intellectual disability, says envoy

Some UN human rights experts had claimed that awarding the death penalty for drug crimes is incompatible with international law and said the punishment should only be imposed for the most serious crimes.

Singapore’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva has said that the High Court had found that Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, an Indian-origin Malaysian facing execution for drug trafficking, had borderline intellectual functioning but did not suffer from mild intellectual disability, according to a news report.

Responding on Thursday to a joint urgent appeal from four special UN rapporteurs who on October 29 called on Singapore to definitively halt Nagaenthran’s execution, Ambassador Umej Bhatia said that the convict had psychosocial disabilities, The Strait Times reported.

Nagaenthran, 33, was scheduled to be hanged at Changi Prison on Wednesday. However, the execution was suspended on Tuesday by the Court of Appeal after he tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of his appeal hearing.

In his reply, Bhatia said that during Nagaenthran’s re-sentencing hearing several years ago, the High Court had specifically considered whether he met the diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

Nagaenthran had filed the application in February 2015, and the High Court, which dismissed it in September 2017, found that he did not suffer from mild intellectual disability.

“In coming to this finding, the High Court noted that the DSM-V stated that ‘IQ test scores are approximations of conceptual functioning but may be insufficient to assess reasoning in real life situations and mastery of practical tasks’,” said Bhatia.

The evidence considered included the testimony of Nagaenthran’s own psychiatric expert, who agreed that he was not suffering from any intellectual disability.

“The High Court and Court of Appeal held that Nagaenthran clearly understood the nature of his acts and did not lose his sense of judgment of the rightness or wrongness of what he was doing,” said Bhatia.

“Despite knowing the unlawfulness of his acts, he undertook the criminal endeavour so that he could pay off some part of a monetary debt. The Court of Appeal found that this was the working of a criminal mind, weighing the risks and countervailing benefits associated with the criminal conduct in question, and that Nagaenthran took a calculated risk which, contrary to his expectations, materialised.

“It was a deliberate, purposeful and calculated decision on Nagaenthran’s part to take the chance,” he added.

UN human rights experts Morris Tidball-Binz, Gerard Quinn, Felipe Gonzelez Morales and Nils Melzer had claimed that awarding the death penalty for drug crimes is incompatible with international law and said the punishment should only be imposed for the most serious crimes.

“Drug-related offences do not meet this threshold,” they said. “Resorting to this type of punishment to prevent drug trafficking is not only illegal under international law, it is also ineffective,” The Straits Times quoted the experts as saying.

In his reply, Bhatia noted that there is no international consensus for or against the use of the death penalty, or on what constitutes the “most serious crimes”.

He said it is every country’s “sovereign right” to decide the use of capital punishment “considering its own circumstances and in accordance with its international law obligations”.

Responding to allegations that Nagaenthran’s family members were given a long list of Covid-19 rules to follow and that they were not permitted to take public transport to visit him in prison, Bhatia said these requirements were part of Singapore’s prevailing Covid protocols applicable to all travellers from Malaysia.

He added that the Singapore authorities have been in touch with Nagaenthran’s family members to facilitate their entry and stay in Singapore.

The UN experts had also asked Singapore to honour its commitment to release data on death penalty.

Bhatia said Singapore publishes the number of judicial executions carried out every year in the Singapore Prison Service’s (SPS) annual statistics release, and that the latest statistics for 2020 could be found on the SPS’ website.

A check found that 13 executions were carried out in 2018, four in 2019 and zero in 2020.

Nagaenthran was 21 when he was arrested in 2009 for trafficking drugs at Woodlands checkpoint on a causeway link between Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia with a bundle of drugs strapped to his thigh.

He was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2010 for importing 42.72 grams of heroin in 2009.

The Misuse of Drugs Act provides for the death sentence where the amount of heroin imported is more than 15 grams.

The case came under the spotlight late last month when the Singapore Prison Service wrote to Nagaenthran’s mother on October 26, informing her that the death sentence on her son would be carried out on November 10.

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