Lawyers challenge death sentence

Posted by Afua Hirsch under News on 21 March 2010

Should the death penalty be an automatic punishment for drug traffickers? Lawyers for Yong Vui Kong argue country's policy of mandatory execution in drug cases is a breach of human rights.

Lawyers for Yong Vui Kong argue country's policy of mandatory execution in drug cases is a breach of human rights

Automatic execution for drug smugglers is inhumane and disproportionate, a court in Singapore has heard, as a 21-year-old challenged his death sentence for bringing heroin into the country.

Lawyers representing Yong Vui Kong, a 22-year old Malaysian, argued that the mandatory death sentence violates international standards and human rights laws. Singapore executes anyone found guilty of importing more than 15g of drugs. It is one of the few countries in the world to impose mandatory death sentences for drug offences.

"This is a young man, only 22, who committed a non-violent offence," said Saul Lehrfreund, co-founder of the Death Penalty Project, a London-based legal program that appeals against death sentences. "The court in Singapore has no choice by to impose death by hanging, regardless of the individual circumstances of the case. In this day and age that just seems ludicrous."

Kong, whom lawyers describe as "impoverished and vulnerable", was due to be hanged last December until lawyers obtained an emergency reprieve. He was convicted in 2008 of smuggling 47g of heroin into Singapore.

The case is regarded by experts as an important challenge to the country's death penalty and has attracted media attention across Asia, where executing people for drug offences remains controversial.

Taiwan recently absolished the mandatory death penalty. China, which continues to execute prisoners for 68 different offences including 44 non-violent crimes, allows judicial discretion in sentencing drug-related cases.

Singapore has seen a big decline in its use of the death penalty since having the highest execution rate in the world in the 1990s, but the government is resisting any change to the law. Singapore's attorney general, Walter Woon, has argued that parliament has the power to show mercy in individual cases.

Kong was refused mercy in December, and his lawyers are arguing that the courts and not the executive should have the discretionary power. "It can't be right that an administrative body not amenable to judicial review effectively becomes the sentencing body," said Lehrfreund. "There is a clear global trend away from sentencing people to death without taking their age, vulnerability and other powerful mitigating factors into account."

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Guardian Heroin smuggler challenges Singapore death sentence 15 March 2010

Today ‘Clemency not matter for judiciary' 16 March 2010

Straits Times Death row appeal: Apex court reserves decision 16 March 2010

Jacob 69er Singapore's Court of Appeal reserves judgment in Vui Kong's appeal hearing 15 March 2010

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