On November 9, just one day before he was scheduled to be hanged in Singapore after spending more than a decade on death row for a drug offense, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam received a stay of execution. He had tested positive for Covid-19, which led the Court of Appeal to adjourn a scheduled hearing to a later date.
The irony that Singapore was determined to hang a man with an IQ of 69 and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) for a nonviolent drug offense, but not if he has a physical illness, has not been lost on observers.
Nagaenthran, a 33-year-old Malaysian national, was arrested in 2009 after he entered Singapore carrying 42.7 grams (approximately three tablespoons) of diamorphine. He was sentenced to death in 2010 and due to be executed on November 10. The rescheduled court hearing will be his last chance to challenge his death sentence.
Nagaenthran’s story has highlighted not just the cruel absurdity of capital punishment, but the extra challenges faced by those with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities in accessing true justice. Nagaenthran faced police questioning that failed to take into account his intellectual challenges, and inconsistencies in the statements he made during that questioning were then used both to convict him and to portray him as someone with a “criminal mind.”
The Singapore government’s apparent determination to execute Nagaenthran struck a chord not only in Singapore, but internationally, sparking protests in Malaysia, condemnations by the United Nations, diplomats and public figures such as Richard Branson, and wide coverage in the global media.
While Nagaenthran is recovering from Covid-19, that recovery could cost him his life. Once he no longer tests positive for the coronavirus, the Court of Appeal will hear his final challenge to his sentence and, if it fails, a grant of clemency from the president of Singapore will be his only hope of avoiding the gallows.
His reprieve while recovering from Covid-19 is only temporary – his execution, if not halted by the court or a grant of clemency, will be permanent. All of those who raised their voices before his hearing was adjourned should continue to do so now.