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Death penalty debate: is abolition on the horizon?

May 17, 2022
topic:Death Penalty
tags:#death penalty, #Singapore, #USA, #human rights
located:China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, USA
by:Robert Bociaga
The execution of a Malaysian drug trafficker with an intellectual disability in Singapore has rekindled the global debate around the death penalty and whether or not it should be regarded as an acceptable form of  punishment in the 21st century. 

Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a 34-year-old Malaysian national who had been in custody in Singapore since 2010 after he was caught with roughly 42 grams of heroin on him, recently lost his final legal appeal and was executed on 27 April, 2022. 

"It’s devastating to campaign for a person’s life and not succeed," Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist from Singapore, told FairPlanet. "But while we mourn the loss, we also turn this sadness and anger into an even greater resolve to end the death penalty."

"Nagen’s case garnered unprecedented support from Singaporeans," she added, “and has proved more people oppose the death penalty."


In Singapore, an island-state of 5.4 million people, capital punishment is applied mainly for murder and drug-related charges, as well as fire-arm related offenses. 

Nagen had been on a death row for 12 years prior to his execution, and his disability and low socioeconomic background urged many  to claim that capital punishment was inappropriate in his case. "Capital punishment is not a strong deterrent, as drug mules are always in abundance as there are countless exploitable people out there, desperate to risk," Brian Hoe, another activist, told FairPlanet, stressing that the punishment does not impact influential drug lords. 

Others propose that rather than stigmatising and punishing individuals, society ought to establish systems that nullify the very inequalities which often cause people to resort to drug trafficking in the first place.

Nagen’s story triggered a broad outpouring of support in the last 6 months of his life. An online petition urging the President of Singapore to grant him clemency garnered over 100,000 signatures. 

Nevertheless, "it is still difficult to elevate this to a national conversation because abolitionist perspectives are not given space in mainstream discourse, which tends to reproduce the government’s claims," Kirsten Han said. 

International and Malaysian lawyers and Singaporean anti-death penalty activists tried to appeal, raising objections against Singapore for not conforming with the international norms ruling that any mentally unfit capital offenders should not be executed. In the US, the American Psychiatrist Association called his case a "flagrant breach" of human rights. 

"As long as this cruel capital punishment regime exists, as long as there are prisoners on death row, we will not stop," Kirsten Han added. 


The abolitionist movement finds its roots in the writings of such philosophers such as Voltaire; yet it was Beccaria's 1767 essay that impacted the world most drastically when it comes to public opinion regarding capital punishment. According to Beccaria, there is no justification for the state's to take one's life.

Since then, the debate around this issue has resurfaced numerous times, particularly surrounding the most highly publicised cases. 

Until today, both advocates and opponents of the death penalty evoke the moral justification for its usage. For some, taking the life of someone who has committed a crime does not constitute a punishment at all - but a pure vengeance. Others argue that allowing a murderer to sit in a climate-controlled cell, receive free meals, have access to healthcare, read books and make phone calls while their victim lies in a box under the ground is simply unjust. 

The debate gets even more complex once one considers that in the United States, for instance, there are countless cases of people who maintain their innocence and end up on death row - many of whom had already been executed. 

According to National Academy of Sciences, four percent of death row inmates in the US are innocent. While some may argue that this percentage is negligible, others view it as proof that practically anyone could potentially land on death row and, after years of detention, be executed. 

Overall, the number of executions int the US has been on the decline and more than half of the states have either abolished the death penalty or suspended it. Some have also called on President Biden to abolish the death penalty on the federal level. 

With United States striving to reaffirm its role as an advocate of human rights on the global stage, many propose that it should have a coherent human rights strategy implemented both at home and abroad.


In the global context, China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia account for the lion’s share of all known executions. The statistics, however, do not account for extrajudicial executions, which fall outside of the narrow definition of capital punishment but are nonetheless used - in many cases - by repressive regimes as a tool to crush dissent. 

Capital punishment can also be viewed as a part of religious tradition and therefore be hard to abandon. Some even continue to interpret that the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) permits it in some cases.

In the Muslim faith, "Sharia Law only allows death penalty in very limited cases, mainly as a punishment for predetermined murder," said Fahad Ghuwaydi, a Saudi national living abroad. 

The recently released report by his organization, SANAD, argues that the Saudi regime's violations are on the rise. "The Saudi regime extends the use of capital punishment to cover many other non-violent crimes such as drug dealing, political opposition, rape, treason, sorcery and anyone who is critical of the regime, king or ruling family," Ghuwaydi explained.

Today, Ghuwaydi defends human rights and informs about "unprecedented level of repression" in his homeland, after he found himself targeted by the authorities, which pushed him into exile. 

According to Ghuwaydi, "the executions remain a thorny issue in Saudi Arabia as the regime exploits the subject politically as a method to deter violators. In 2021, even children who were accused of participating in demonstrations to defend rights, such as Mustafa Al-Darwish, faced this penalty, despite their age."

Under highly repressive regimes with no transparent legal systems it is very hard to debate on the limitations of capital punishment. "Media and people are afraid to discuss this in public," Ghuwaydi said, adding that while some people demand the abolishment of the death penalty, others want it to be ulitised only in cases of predetermined murder.

Change is possible  

In the global context, the abolitionist movement is far from being a united front, considering the various contexts in which it needs to operate. The advocacy for human rights activists and organisations greatly varies from country to country. 

In the west, it seems, many leaders turn a blind eye to their trade partners' usage of capital punishment as an instrument of repression, thereby enabling further injustice.

Yet Ghuwaydi believes that "change is possible, especially thanks to the Internet and social media."

Image by Francesca Runza

Article written by:
Robert Bociaga
China Iraq Iran Saudi Arabia USA
Embed from Getty Images
Death row in the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, where 24 men are awaiting execution.
© Bettmann via Getty
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Tuti Tursilawati, a migrant worker from Indonesia, was executed seven years after she was convicted of murdering her employer in the Saudi city of Taif.
© Andrew Lotulung/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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