Singapore: indefinite stay of execution for man with learning disabilities after he gets Covid

A man with learning disabilities who is facing the death penalty in Singapore for smuggling a small amount of heroin has had his appeal adjourned and been given an indefinite stay of execution after testing positive for Covid.

Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man arrested in April 2009 when he was 21 for attempting to smuggle 43 grams of heroin into Singapore, has been on death row since 2010. His execution had been scheduled for Wednesday.

His lawyer had applied for a reprieve on Monday on the basis that his client has “severe mental disabilities” and that his execution would be unlawful.

The application was dismissed, but the execution was stayed since Dharmalingam had a right to appeal. The appeal was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, with Dharmalingam’s supporters fearing the execution would still go ahead on Wednesday.

But it was announced on Tuesday that Dharmalingam had tested positive for Covid, prompting the court to adjourn the hearing. It ordered an indefinite stay of execution, according to Nagaenthran’s lawyer M Ravi.

The case has caused global outrage, with Singaporean activists, UN experts, international rights groups and legal groups asking for the execution to be halted.

The businessman Richard Branson, who has previously campaigned against the death penalty, also issued a statement condemning the sentence. “Proceeding with the execution of a man who may not have fully understood the consequences of his actions, nor his rights in court, would cast serious doubts on Singapore’s willingness to uphold international law,” he said.

Dharmalingam has an IQ of 69, a level recognised as indicating a learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to campaigners. His supporters say there is evidence that he was forced to courier drugs as a victim of human trafficking.

Dharmalingam’s older sister, Sarmila, said she was relieved the execution had been stayed, but pointed out it was only temporary. In a statement shared on Twitter by the journalist Kirsten Han, she said: “It took me a long time to be able to get to sleep last night because I was worrying about my brother, and when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and crying, just waiting until 2.30pm for the court hearing today …

“I’m only a little bit happy, because I know they haven’t stopped the execution, only given it a temporary stay … I’m worried that all this will repeat again.”

Dharmalingam’s family is no longer allowed to visit him and will only be permitted phone calls. “We don’t know yet how often we will be able to have these phone calls,” Sarmila said.

A group of 11 British MPs and peers have written to the Singaporean high commissioner, asking that Dharmalingam’s life be spared. In the letter, they state they have learned that Dharmalingam is “seemingly unaware of the fact he faces execution, due to his mental condition, and that he is hallucinating, incoherent, and imagining his prison cell as a garden in which he is safe”.

UN experts have urged Singapore to definitively halt the execution. “We are concerned that Mr Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam did not have access to procedural accommodations for his disability during his interrogation. We further highlight that death sentences must not be carried out on persons with serious psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.

“We are also concerned that his past 11 years on death row has reportedly caused further deterioration of his mental health,” a statement said. It was signed by five UN experts including Morris Tidball-Binz, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

In a statement released after Monday’s hearing, the attorney general’s chambers statement said: “The high court reiterated that Dharmalingam has been accorded due process in accordance with the law. The high court stated that it is not open to Dharmalingam to challenge the court’s findings pertaining to his mental responsibility, whether directly or indirectly, in yet another attempt to revisit and unravel the finality of those findings.”

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