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Singapore Executes Indian-Origin Man Over ‘Ganja’: Here’s What’s Not Adding Up

Despite alleged gaps in procedure and violations of international law, why did Singapore execute Tangaraju Suppiah?

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After spending almost nine years in Singaporean prisons and detention centres, Tangaraju Suppiah, a 46-year-old Indian-origin man was executed on charges of drug trafficking on Wednesday, 26 April, after he was caught trying to smuggle over 1kg of cannabis into Singapore.

"Singaporean Tangaraju Suppiah, 46, had his capital sentence carried out today at Changi Prison Complex," a Singapore Prisons Service spokesperson told the news agency AFP.

The execution was carried out after President Halimah Yacob rejected pleas for clemency on the eve of the execution.

The country has some of the world's harshest and toughest anti-drug laws, arguing that such measures are necessary to deter drug crime and drug use, both major causes of concern across southeast Asia.

However, Suppiah's case is not as open and shut as it seems. Not only has Singapore's decision to execute him over a "dubious" drug charge drawn criticism from around the world, several notable personalities have claimed that Singapore may have executed "an innocent man."

While this story does not aim to defend Tangaraju's actions, it will point out procedural lapses, loopholes and possible international statute violations in the execution of the Indian-origin man.

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  1. If You’re Unfamiliar With the Case…

    When he was arrested in 2014, Tangaraju Suppiah was already in remand for unrelated drug consumption charges and was arrested in the same month for skipping bail and failing to report for urine tests since late 2013. Suppiah spent most of his early life going in and out of prison for marijuana consumption and possession.

    According to Tangaraju's sister, he turned down a plea bargain because he believed he could prove his innocence in court since he was not caught in possession of the drugs seized by the Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore, didn't pay or receive money for it, and claimed that there was no evidence that he placed an order for it.

    He was accused of coordinating with two men to traffic more than a kilogram (1,017.9 grams) of cannabis in September 2013, but never received the drugs allegedly ordered by him. 

    Three years after his arrest, Tangaraju stood trial and was found guilty of abetting the trafficking of cannabis by engaging in a conspiracy with another person and was sentenced to death in October 2018.

    A judge found that he was using a phone number that was communicating with traffickers who were attempting to smuggle the drugs into Singapore. After his appeal was dismissed almost a year later, Suppiah was imprisoned on Changi Prison's death row.

    Tangaraju's motion to apply for a review of his appeal was also dismissed in February 2023, and on 19 April 2023, his sister received Tangaraju's execution notice.

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Were Procedural Lapses Overlooked? 

Based on media reports on the judgment, Tangaraju's conviction is largely based on statements recorded by police officials during an interrogation. It is alleged that neither a lawyer nor a Tamil interpreter, as he requested, were present.

It also took into account witness testimonies which connected him to a phone number that Tangaraju claimed he lost before the incident took place.

Given Singapore's stringent procedures to follow the rule of law, such an allegation does lay doubt on possible lapses over the course of Tangaraju's trial. Condemning the execution notice, Amnesty International said:

The prosecution "failed to locate a fourth man, who the judges deemed to be material to corroborate this witness’ statement; and to disclose to the defence the statements made by the co-accused, as well as the phone records in question."

While the judge handling Tangaraju's case considered the objections to inconsistencies in arguments put forward from the persecution, he dismissed them. One of the co-accused later had his charges dismissed. While these do not conclusively prove that Tangaraju is innocent, it does draw questions to the conclusiveness of his conviction.

Singapore has reiterated its "zero-tolerance stance" and multi-pronged approach to tackle drug abuse and said:

"The death penalty is an essential component of Singapore's criminal justice system and has been effective in keeping Singapore safe and secure."

However, the country, which has faced severe and consistent fire for proscribing the death penalty in drug cases, authorities have repeatedly failed to provide tangible evidence that such punishments bring down drug consumption in the country.

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"Killing those at the lowest rungs of the illicit drug supply chain, often minorities living in poverty, is hardly effective in curbing an international trade worth hundreds of billions every year," Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson said in a blog post.

A Violation of International Law?

An important note to make is that in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, international safeguards mandate that such a punishment be imposed only when the accused's guilt is based on clear, convincing evidence which leaves no space for an alternative, plausible narrative.

Moreover, International laws and standards such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a key international human rights treaty, prohibits the imposition of mandatory death sentences for anything but the "most serious crimes."

Meanwhile, Amnesty International also expressed concern at the judgement's reliance on the country's Misuse of Drugs Act, which makes a distressing legal presumption:

"Any person who is proved to have in their possession certain amounts of prohibited substances, can be presumed to have knowledge of the substance contained in the package and its quantity, and to have had that drug in their possession for the purpose of trafficking, unless they can prove differently..."
Amnesty International

The United Nations Human Rights Council also highlighted concerns around the original court case and the "due process and respect for fair trial guarantees."

"We urge the Government not to proceed with the imminent hanging of Tangaraju Suppiah. Imposing the death penalty for drug offences is incompatible with intl norms & standards," the UN body said on Twitter prior to the execution.

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Reversing a Death Sentence Is Not Unprecedented at All!

Singapore does have provisions and precedent of re-sentencing convicts arrested for similar drug trafficking charges.

Vui Kong, a Malaysian national, was found guilty of drug trafficking in 2007 and sentenced to death in 2008. Subsequently, he lost multiple appeals against the death sentence, without respite.

However, when Singapore made amendments to the law in 2013, which said that provided that the trafficker only acts as a courier, judges had the discretion to re-sentence the convicts to life sentences.

Vui Yong became the first drug convict to be spared from death row. Subsequently, several death row convicts with circumstances similar to Tangaraju's, such as Subashkaran Pragasam, a Singaporean found guilty of trafficking heroin; and Cheong Chun Yin, a Malaysian convicted of trafficking heroin, had their sentences reduced to life in prison.

All of this raises an important question:

Despite several alleged gaps in procedure, which were brought to the court's notice, why was Tangaraju Suppiah executed?
Copy of Quint World Letter | Pranay Dutta Roy by Quint Digital Media Limited

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Topics:  cannabis   Singapore   Death Penalty 

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