SINGAPORE (Reuters) - In the quiet pre-dawn hours of a Friday, someone could be on their way to the gallows in Singapore's Changi prison. But no one knows for sure.
Capital punishment in the tiny island state has long been shrouded in silence, with little public debate about the issue and even less information on how the process is carried out.
"We do have a general policy not to give any information on the death penalty," a prison official told Reuters.
Even the families of those facing the gallows receive scant notice, and any information about the Friday hangings are typically released only after the deed has been done.
"Families are in a state of complete anxiety and lack of knowledge until very, very late in the day," said Tim Parritt, a spokesman for human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
The system came under international scrutiny when a German woman last month found herself facing the death penalty after being charged with trafficking in slightly more than 500 grams of cannabis -- a drug now decriminalised in some parts of Europe.
Julia Suzanne Bohl escaped the gallows after a Singapore court reduced the charges against her, but the 22-year old still faces a lengthy jail sentence.
Tough drug laws enacted in 1975 made the death sentence mandatory for trafficking in more than 15 grams (half an ounce) of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis.
Singapore law assumes a person to be trafficking if they are found in possession of a certain quantity of drugs, thereby shifting the burden of proof to the accused.
Singapore caused a diplomatic storm in 1994 when it ignored Western appeals and hanged a Dutchman for trafficking heroin.
High Execution Rate
The prosperous city-state of four million, ruled by the People's Action Party for four decades, has had capital punishment for murder since its days as a British colony.
Those found guilty of kidnapping, treason and certain firearm offences could also face the gallows, although local civil rights group the Think Centre says about 70 percent of hangings are for drug offences.
The government revealed recently, only in reply to a question in parliament, that 340 people were hanged between 1991 and 2000.
In a response to a Reuters query, it also said 22 people were executed for drug trafficking in 2001 and 17 in the year before.
Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world relative to its population, Amnesty's Parritt said.
The highest outright number of executions were carried out by China, the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Amnesty said.
"(The) concern Amnesty has about Singapore is the lack of information issued on executions, the number of executions and the processes...which might feed a public debate and a higher level of public scrutiny about what is actually happening," Parritt said.
Local activists say the lack of exposure and education about the death penalty has led to scant public debate.
"The whole education (system) doesn't touch, from very young, on human rights at all," Think Centre president Sinapan Samydorai said.
Some 110 nations have abolished capital punishment in law or practice as of November 2001, while another 85 retain it.
"The whole trend in the world right now is to re-look at the death penalty... If these things get highlighted too much it's also quite negative on Singapore," Samydorai said.
"It's a very sensitive issue (for the government)."
Western critics point to the "right to life" as a fundamental reason to abolish the death penalty, but Singapore has shrugged off such notions and looks unlikely to scrap it anytime soon.
"The basic difference in our approach springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual," Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech.
"In criminal law legislation, our priority is the security and well being of law-abiding citizens rather than the rights of the criminal to be protected from incriminating evidence."
Low Crime Rates
Amnesty says the death penalty is not a deterrent to the drug trade as runners, rather than the kingpins, are most at risk of facing the gallows.
But Singapore's low crime rates and general state of law and order has been held up as good reason to keep capital punishment.
"There is widespread belief amongst lawmakers and the public in Singapore that the death penalty has worked," said National University of Singapore law professor, Michael Hor.
"Abolition would send the wrong message to criminal actors who might interpret such development as the government going soft on crime."
Amnesty has called on Singapore to commute the death sentence into long jail terms but chances of the public interest and debate needed to fuel such action seem remote.
"No government wants to take on Singapore because they are trading here too. They keep quiet except when their own nationals are arrested," Samydorai said.
"Nobody makes noise when a local is being hung."