The Singapore government announced on Monday that it will soften some of its death penalty laws, particularly those related to drug offenses, but insisted that capital punishment will stand in the country. Some human rights groups say the changes do not go far enough.
"The death penalty has been an important part of our criminal justice system for a very long time, similar to the position in a number of other countries," said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean.
"Singaporeans understand that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for very serious offenses, and largely support it. As part of our penal framework, it has contributed to keeping crime and the drug situation under control," he added, revealing that a review of the death penalty system had been going on since July 2011.
Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam, who also spoke for Parliament, announced that "justice can be tempered with mercy and where appropriate, offenders should be given a second chance."
In Singapore, anyone caught dealing drugs above the stipulated thresholds is liable for capital punishment.
While the death penalty for dealing drugs still stands, it has been loosened so that local courts are given discretion in handling certain cases. For instance, drug traffickers who have only been couriers and nothing else stand the chance of avoiding the death penalty, but also need to have fully cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau. People with mental disabilities deemed to have been unable to understand the severity of their crimes can also be given a pass, ChannelNewsAsia.com reported.
Teo explained that it will be up to the courts if people who fall under such categories will be given the death penalty or of they will be spared and given a life sentence instead. He warned, however, that this does not mean that the government will be any less aggressive when it comes to taking down the drug business.
On the subject of murder, Shanmugam stated that the mandatory death penalty will be upheld for anyone found guilty of intentional killing.
"This change will ensure that our sentencing framework properly balances the various objectives: justice to the victim, justice to society, justice to the accused, and mercy in appropriate cases," Shanmugam said. "This is a matter of judgment and the approach being taken is not without risks, but we believe this is a step we can take."
Records show that there are currently 35 persons awaiting capital punishment in Singapore, with 28 convicted for drug offenses and seven for murder.
The Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore and the Law Society of Singapore have described the changes as a "milestone" in the country's legal history, and said that the government has made the right decision to give the courts more discretion.
"This change... recognizes that the measure of a society is how it treats its most unfortunate," said Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore and one of Singapore's most prominent defense lawyers. "Death row inmates deserve punishment, but not all deserve death. These new measures...will have a massive impact on the criminal justice system."
Others, however, have been more critical, insisting that Singapore continues to stand in opposition to human rights laws around the world due to its harsh penalties.
"There is a concern that this could lead to false hope and expectations. This is not a big bang at all, but a refinement," said Eugene Tan, a professor of law at the Singapore Management University and an independent lawmaker. "This is not Singapore sending a signal that it is soft on capital punishment."
Other activists have said the decision is a step in the right direction, and called for the government to show more mercy.
"[We] certainly did not expect this announcement to be made today. I think it is a good first step and hope it means that inmates... will be able to have their cases relooked [sic], and that they will be shown mercy," said Kirsten Han, co-founder of the anti-death penalty activist group We Believe in Second Chances.
"It's not the end of the death penalty. But it's a move in the right direction that no one really expected," said Alan Shadrake, a British author who was jailed last year for criticisms of Singapore's judiciary in his book "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock."
Groups like Amnesty International have been especially critical of the Singapore government executing foreigners for drug offenses, instead of allowing home countries to deal with them by their rules.
"Many courts and judicial bodies around the world have ruled mandatory death sentencing as unconstitutional," the organization said in a statement. It also added that mandatory death sentences "constitute arbitrary deprivation of life and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment."
Human rights group MARUAH also reacted to the news, with president Braema Mathi saying, "We applaud the Singapore government for taking this important first step. But this is only a small step in the right direction, as the mandatory death penalty is fundamentally troubling, and it continues to be applied to a substantial number of criminal offenses."
Mathi went on to note that the organization found it troubling that capital punishment still remains for offenses involving kidnapping and fire arms.
According to statistics published earlier this year, Singapore's crime rate dropped to 7 percent in 2011, the lowest it has ever been in 20 years.