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Death Penalty, Remembrance

For Sam

Shanmugam Murugesu, or Sam as he was known to friends, was executed 6 years ago today by the Singapore Government.

This video of Sam’s mother and two sons appealing to the President outside the Istana to spare his life was shot by Martyn See on April 16th, 2005.

Singapore anti-death penalty fight lives on
Martin Abbugao, AFP, May 16, 2005

When family and friends paid a final visit to Shanmugam Murugesu on the eve of his execution Friday, he urged them to press on with a rejuvenated campaign to end the death penalty in Singapore.

There were eight other convicts waiting to be hanged at Changi Prison and he did not want them to die in isolation, one visitor recalled him saying.

Murugesu, 38, a former soldier, jet-ski champion and divorced father of two, was executed for trafficking 1,029.8 grams of marijuana, yet civil rights activists who had mounted the futile attempt to save him have vowed to fight on despite admitting it will be an uphill battle.

Interest stirred through unprecedented public efforts to save Murugesu by his family, friends and civil rights advocates has injected new life into the anti-death penalty campaign.

Emboldened by the fledgling support, the campaigners hope to further galvanize public opinion at a time when the government is opening up and allowing the public to speak out more on controversial issues.

A candlelit vigil for Murugesu held at a Singapore hotel this month attracted about 100 people – activists and opposition politicians as well as ordinary citizens, many of whom bought and wore T-shirts opposing the death penalty.

“I feel that tonight’s event is a display of courage. I think we need the courage of a lot of people for things to change,” said Iris Koh, a music teacher who volunteered to sing at the evening vigil.

Murugesu’s lawyer, M Ravi, said fear in this famously tightly controlled city-state remains a a major factor preventing more people openly supporting the campaign. In an example of the extent authorities still monitor dissenters, an “open mike session” at the vigil in which the audience was invited to speak was abruptly ended just after the first speaker began to talk.

Organizers said plainclothes police officers stepped in and asked them to scrap that portion of the program.

Singapore, which has some of the toughest laws in the world against drug trafficking, maintains that capital punishment is a crime deterrent contributing to the safety and security its residents now enjoy.

A death sentence is mandatory for trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine and 500 grams of cannabis, as well as for other crimes such as murder, treason, kidnapping and certain firearm offenses. For drugs, a person caught in possession of illegal substances is assumed to be trafficking, thus putting the burden of proof on to the accused.

The death penalty “is part of a range of punishments which has helped keep crime rates and drug abuse rates in Singapore low,” the Home Affairs Ministry said. “We weigh the right to life of the convicted against the rights of victims and the rights of the community to live and work in peace and security. As a result, Singapore is one of the safest places in the world to live and work in,” it said, adding Singapore has a “well-respected and independent judiciary” and its legal system had been consistently rated highly in global rankings.

But civil rights advocates argue there is still room for error and first-time offenders such as Murugesu should be given a second chance. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said last year more than 400 people had been executed in Singapore between 1991 and 2003, which it described as a “shocking number” for a nation of just more than four million people.

The Home Affairs Ministry said eight Singaporeans and foreigners were executed last year and 19 in 2003.

Amnesty has criticized Singapore for releasing scant information about death row convicts and their conditions.

Sinapan Samydorai, president of civil rights group Think Centre, said this was why Murugesu’s cooperation in the anti-death penalty campaign was crucial. He told them about the eight other people waiting to be hanged. One already public case is that of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian man of Vietnamese descent who was convicted of drug charges. – AFP

Related links on Singapore’s use of death penalty

Think Centre

Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign: facebook page and blog

We Believe in Second Chances: facebook page and blog

Petition for clemency of Yong Vui Kong denied

Author of death penalty book arrested by Singapore police day after book launch

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