When the Malaysian Cabinet announced plans this week to amend legislation to eliminate the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses, many cheered. But history shows that the cheering may be premature. Malaysian authorities have been talking about removing the mandatory death penalty since at least 2015, but so far haven’t done so. It is time for the government to stop talking and act.
Judges in Malaysia are currently required to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of “trafficking” in drugs – presumed for anyone possessing more than minimal amounts. In November 2015, Nancy Shukri, then the de facto law minister, said she hoped to introduce legislation to abolish the mandatory death penalty as early as March 2016. Nothing happened.
This March, Azalina Othman, who replaced Shukri in a cabinet reshuffle, announced the cabinet would “review” the mandatory death penalty. She further stated that she had directed the solicitor general to come up with draft amendments “quickly” so they could be presented to Parliament. Again, nothing happened. This week, the House of Representatives sat in Kuala Lumpur, but the government introduced no legislation to change the death penalty. Instead, in response to a question in Parliament, Othman announced the cabinet “had agreed” that the mandatory death penalty should be removed for some drug offenses. So why hasn’t it? What is taking so long?
The proposed change would simply amend section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act to allow judges to exercise discretion in sentencing in some cases. This amendment is still far short of the change needed, but it certainly would be a step in the right direction, and provide a significant contrast to the worsening, rights-violating responses to drugs elsewhere in Southeast Asia, namely the Philippines and Indonesia.
The Malaysian government should stop playing games, and firmly commit now to introduce legislation in the next sitting of Parliament to eliminate the mandatory death penalty for all drug offenses – not just some drug offenses. And while it is making changes to its policies on the death penalty, the government should also impose a moratorium on executions, and move swiftly to full abolition of the death penalty. Talk is cheap. It is time for action.