After a yearlong review, Singapore officials announced in Parliament on Monday that mandatory death sentences in a dozen categories of serious offenses will be retained because they have broad public support and have proved effective in deterring crime.
The review, which kept executions on hold for more than a year, did result in authorities allowing courts discretion to issue life sentences instead of death in some cases involving minor drug dealers who provide substantial assistance to the Central Narcotics Bureau.
Singapore has been criticized by anti-death-penalty groups as having the highest per capita execution rate in the world in the few years when the city-state has released information about its exercise of capital punishment. Officials reported in 2004 that 138 people had been executed over the previous five years, in a population of 5.3 million.
As part of the parliamentary discussion of the death penalty review and minor legal amendments, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean reported that 35 prisoners are on death row, 28 of them for drug offenses and seven for murder.
"The death penalty has been an important part of our criminal justice system for a very long time," Teo told Parliament, according to Channel NewsAsia. "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."
Law Minister K. Shanmugam was quoted by the Asia One network as saying that the exemption of some minor drug offenses from mandatory death sentences "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."
Amnesty International reported after the 2004 disclosures that Singapore led the world in executions by one measure, putting to death more people per capita than China or Saudi Arabia. The rights agency had urged Singapore authorities to abolish capital punishment when it appealed two years ago for a reprieve in the case of a Malaysian sentenced to death in 2008 for carrying 1.7 ounces of heroin. Yong Vui Kong was 19 at the time of his offense.
Yong's lawyer told Channel NewsAsia that his client was "most eligible" for reconsideration of his sentence under the amended death penalty law as he has provided authorities with crucial testimony against the drug ring mastermind who employed him.
Singapore carries out death penalties by hanging at dawn on Fridays at the Changi Prison.
The U.S. nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center reports that the countries with the most confirmed executions last year were China (1,000s), Iran (360), Saudi Arabia (82), Iraq (68), the United States (43) and Yemen (41).
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: At a December 2005 prayer vigil in Sydney, a man holds a photo of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian citizen executed in Singapore for smuggling drugs. Credit: Greg Wood / AFP/Getty Images