Nagaenthran Dharmalingam and the Gross Injustice of Capital Punishment for Nonviolent Drug Offenses

by Sophie Trist



In the United States, the death penalty is generally used for those convicted of first-degree or premeditated murder, but in other parts of the world, governments can legally kill people for a much broader swath of offenses. According to Harm Reduction International’s 2020 report, 35 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Asia, still retain the death penalty for nonviolent drug crimes.


In 2020, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia carried out a total of 30 confirmed executions for nonviolent drug offenses. Although the number of people executed for drug crimes has been decreasing due to both political changes and the Covid-19 pandemic, death sentences are unfortunately trending upward. Around the world, some 3,000 people sit on death row for these nonviolent crimes.


In Singapore, as little as half an ounce of heroin can get a person hanged. Twenty-three people have been executed for nonviolent drug crimes in the city-state since 2010. This gross violation of human rights and international law was recently highlighted by the horrific execution of 34-year-old Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, an intellectually disabled man from Malaysia.


Dharmalingam, whom his lawyers claimed had an IQ of just 69, which is internationally recognized as within the range of intellectual disability, was convicted of smuggling one and a half ounces of heroin into Singapore and sentenced to death in 2010. His execution was stayed in 2021 when he contracted Covid-19. International human rights organizations and disability rights advocates joined with Dharmalingam’s family and delegations from several European nations to plead for mercy, but to no avail. He was hanged on April 27, 2022. After the hanging, officials in Singapore defended the country’s inhumane actions, saying that Dharmalingam knew what he was doing and that his actions were purposeful and deliberate.


In response to the execution, Amnesty International issued a statement calling the hanging an abhorrent act and said that Singapore was pursuing a cruel path directly at odds with the global trend toward abolition of the death penalty. Reprieve, a group which fights to end the death penalty worldwide, called the case a tragic miscarriage of justice, saying that executing someone who was coerced into trafficking less than three teaspoons of heroin is completely unjustifiable and a gross violation of international law.


Like virtually all death row prisoners, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam spent much of the last decade in solitary confinement, which many experts agree amounts to torture. On his last day, Dharmalingam was only allowed to hold hands with his family through a gap in a glass barrier; they weren’t even allowed to hug. After a court turned down his final appeal, he could be heard crying for his mother as he left the courtroom.


Unfortunately, support for capital punishment remains high in Singapore, with 81% of residents saying it is an appropriate punishment for murder and 66% saying it’s appropriate for drug trafficking. A majority of Singapore’s residents also believe that capital punishment deters crimes. Death Penalty Information Center has gathered and summarized many of the existing studies on deterrence and found that capital punishment can’t clearly be linked to a decrease in criminal activity.


Since the death penalty affects only a small minority of even convicted murderers, it’s unlikely that fear of execution stops many crimes. Deterrence may be more powerful in countries like Singapore which use the death penalty more widely, but any deterrent effect it may have is not worth the dehumanizing cost.


Whenever I write about the death penalty, civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s assertion that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done remains front and center in my mind. Killing a helpless prisoner in cold blood is always and forever an affront to human dignity and the very antithesis of justice. Legality cannot legitimize the taking of any human life.


The death penalty is especially egregious when used for nonviolent crimes, and executing the disabled and other vulnerable, marginalized people is the epitome of cruelty. The use or trafficking of drugs does nothing to diminish a person’s humanity. Drug users require rehabilitation, love, and community support. Imprisonment and execution have done nothing to decrease drug use.


It’s time to abandon the brutality of the death penalty for all offenders and look to a restorative justice model that affirms the value of every human life. For now, we can only pray for peace for Nagaenthran Dharmalingam and his loved ones and work toward a world where no one else suffers his fate.


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