Skip to main content

Singapore: Halt Execution of Man with Intellectual Disability

Executing Nagaenthran Dharmalingam Would Violate International Law, Treaty Obligations

An activist in Kuala Lumpur holds a placard in protest of the impending execution in Singapore of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, sentenced for importing diamorphine into Singapore, November 3, 2021. © 2021 Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – Singapore authorities should halt the planned execution of a man with an intellectual disability, Human Rights Watch said today. Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old Malaysian national who was sentenced to death in 2010 for bringing 42.72 grams (approximately three tablespoons) of diamorphine into the country, is scheduled to be executed on November 10, 2021.

“Executing a man with a disability, who was convicted after an investigation and trial that provided no disability-specific accommodations, violates international law and won’t deter crime,” said Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Singapore should commute Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s sentence and amend its laws to ensure that no one is subjected to the death penalty, certainly not people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.”

Under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, the death penalty is mandatory for anyone found guilty of importing more than 15 grams (1.19 tablespoons) of diamorphine. Under amendments passed in 2014, the court has discretion to impose a life sentence rather than the death penalty if it finds that the defendant was merely acting as a courier and “he was suffering from such abnormality of mind as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in relation to the offense.”

Executing someone with an intellectual or psychosocial disability is inconsistent with international law and practice. “International law considers the imposition and enforcement of the death penalty on persons with mental disabilities a violation of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment wrote in 2014. The Singapore court accepted evidence that Nagaenthran has an IQ of 69, ADHD, and "borderline intellectual functioning.”

Nagaenthran was not provided with required support and accommodation for his disabilities to facilitate his effective participation in his trial, nor procedural accommodations to ensure a fair trial and due process. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted that the lack of procedural accommodations violates the right to a fair trial and may lead to an unfair sentence. That office has also recognized that “limited support in terms of procedural accommodations for people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities in criminal proceedings results in their overrepresentation among people sentenced to death.”

Persons with intellectual disabilities are especially at risk when facing the justice system. The Singapore government acknowledged this disadvantage in 2015 when introducing a program to provide an “appropriate adult” to accompany those with intellectual disabilities during police questioning. Nagaenthran did not have the assistance of an “appropriate adult” or any other form of accommodation when the police questioned him after his arrest in 2009, nor did the courts make any disability accommodations during his trial and subsequent appeals.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has stated that “the duty to refrain from imposing the death penalty on persons with intellectual or psychosocial disability is grounded on the disproportionate and discriminatory denial of fair trial guarantees and procedural accommodations to them.” Singapore ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013.

Failure to provide accessible documents and procedural accommodations for persons with disabilities can violate the right to a fair trial. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that governments should not execute or sentence to death individuals who face barriers in defending themselves on an equal basis with others, such as those with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because the inherent dignity of the person is inconsistent with the death penalty. This form of punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

“The inhumanity shown by the Singaporean authorities in Nagaenthran’s case is truly shocking,” Ćerimović said. “The government’s determination to execute a man with an intellectual disability for importing a small amount of drugs is disproportionate and cruel, and deserves global condemnation.”


This statement has been corrected to more accurately reflect the court's findings.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country