Gallows of the Poor: An appeal to abolish the death penalty

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graphic by Preethi Nair
graphic by Preethi Nair

by Barathi Selvam

Only a handful of movies, like strong literary works, could linger in your mind for days or months and have a deep emotional impact. Just Mercy (2019), a story of a death row inmate convicted of homicide awaiting painfully and miserably for the date of his execution, is one such movie. The agony of a black death row inmate who was falsely framed of murdering a young white girl, Ronda Morisson, left viewers shook to their spine as the entire case was built on the basis of assumption, coerced submissions, credibility-lacking witnesses, tampered evidence and motivated by entrenched racism.  

Inspired by the real life incident of Walter “Johny D.” Mc Millian (death row inmate from Alabama US who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death) and his activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy unearthed the entrenched and innate racism within the justice system. The movie is based on the book Just Mercy: A story of justice & redemption, written by Stevenson. Both book and film illustrate inequality within the legal system merited by self-serving interests of white supremacists and demonstrate the law being applied differently depending on one’s skin colour which worked unfairly against the poor and the marginalised black community. In this case, Johny. D was sentenced to be electrocuted to death despite the prosecution team having not provided any physical evidence proving his guilt. Injustice prevailed all over the case which was determined by an all-white jury except for one Afro-American. Even three decades after, Stevenson refuses to hang his coat just yet to defend the lives against retributive justice.

Arbitrary state-sanctioned killings in Singapore

Tragically, after a two-year hiatus on executions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore has carried out five death penalties so far in 2022. Singapore's state apparatus made an uncompassionate move in quashing the final legal appeal to dismiss the death sentence for Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, allegedly a drug mule found with a convictable amount of drugs according to Singaporean law (1). He was later executed on 27th April 2022 at the Changi Prison.

Nagenthran was not the only one underwent the psychological horror in the death row for drug-related offences as there were others like Nazeri bin Lajim, Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, Kalwant Singh and Norasharee bin Gous whose execution appeared inevitable with Singapore’s hasty resumption to mandatory death penalty right after the Covid-19 lockdown was relaxed. 

Malaysians, compatriots from neighbouring countries and death penalty abolitionists all over the world have been aghast with the eventual execution of the alleged drug mules perpetrated by Singapore whose country’s commitment to Human Rights has been on a steady decline, purportedly an exchange for economic prosperity. Execution as such under the name of paying the price for the crime committed or under the larger pretext of stringent laws brought to attention the disparity of law against the poor, underprivileged whereas equally stricter scrutiny or correlation between crime and punishment when it involves the rich and powerful turn either strikingly empathetic or invisible.

The United Nations in a statement (2) condemned this series of execution as the drug offences does not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” defined under international laws. The body even labelled the death penalty in Singapore arbitrarily targeted “minority persons and economically disadvantaged persons.”

On the other hand, right to be represented with attorneys are depleted to the death row inmates in Singapore who have been posed with different kinds of challenges and intimidations for taking up the cases. As reported in Al-Jazeera, lawyer M Ravi claimed that fines amounting 40, 000 Singapore dollars in addition to another 20,000 Singapore dollars were slapped on him. He was fined for, according to court, attempting to prevent executions (3).

Late Supreme Court Judge of India, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer labelled the death penalty a “penological barbarity" (4). In his appeal to the then India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer wrote that the “State cannot sanction murder by handing or otherwise and justify this shocking violence on the score of reprisal against the brutality of private butchers. The staunch abolitionist judge commented in a conference at Stockholm that “I have always stood for clemency for death sentences on the theory that every person, even if he (or she) has committed murder ‘most foul’, must be given an opportunity to reform him(her)self. The State cannot kill, even if a private murderer is found guilty of terrible killing."

A small fish amongst sharks?

When the appeal to dismiss Nagaen’s death sentence appeared on social media, I encountered an old documentary titled Death Row & The Malaysian Drug Trade (1991) of Malaysia’s drug-combatting efforts. The inhumane act of today’s Singapore resembled the Dr. Mahathir in his first-term prime ministership, who in the documentary when asked, stood by the decision of hanging the drug mules to death in spite of overwhelming appeals for clemency. In his trademark style, he claimed the matter is independent of his jurisdiction and fully under the purview of the judiciary.

One of the death row inmates in the documentary expressed that he is merely an unfortunate small fish who gets apprehended while the bigger sharks swim free and continue their operation with nothing more than a minor glitch. Fast forwarding to 2022, the death penalty is now becoming a method of the past and have been scrapped by 108 countries as it is proven ineffective in reducing crime rates. Another 144 countries halted death penalty either in law or in practice. Singapore and Malaysia belong to the last few countries still upholding the barbaric method in its legal practice although the latter has spiritedly issued a moratorium in 2018 and has recently agreed to abolish and replace the mandatory death penalty with different punishments under court’s discretion (5).

This nevertheless didn’t appeal to the conscience of the Singaporean judicial system. The detestable execution is expected to deliver a strong message to the drug syndicates but will the elimination of these small-time drug mules completely eliminate drug transactions or trafficking in their country? If severe punishments are there to prevent such crimes, how successful has Singapore been?

Poor laws for the poor

The root cause for a person or group of people being involved in illegal activities are most conveniently dismissed or left unbothered when it comes to sentencing a punishment. It begins with the question: What drives a young adult like Nagaen (bearing in mind he was arrested in 2009, at the age of 24) to become a drug mule, and are they fully cognisant of the risks attached?

Poverty is plausible to be a driving force behind criminal activities. But, behind them, a silent killer of economic despair, especially in the cases of blue-collared criminals, are inevitable. The bigger question is, what has actually happened with all the promises of reducing the economic gap between the rich and the poor and the rural and urbanites since the post-colonial era? Why are the rich, in spite of ethnic or any primordial affiliations, getting richer at the expense of the poor?

These suffocating socio-economic conditions: lack of equitable opportunities, restrictive quota system, marginalising social developments and many more have been the pressing catalyst for tens of thousands of Nagaen-like individuals ending up on the wrong side of the law in order to have a sustainable life.

Failure of noticing these socio-economic circumstances as opined by Justice Krishna Iyer in the case of Ediga Anamma vs Andhra State (1974) (6), where he commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, based on factors like gender, age, socio-economic background and psychic compulsions among other factors in the case of death penalty instead of looking just at the crime committed. A purposeful reading of the crime by the state and its apparatuses must be grounded on a holistic perspective directed in the path of rehabilitation and championing humane values.

I therefore shall end this write-up with the words of Justice Krishna Iyer: “Death Sentence on Death Sentence is an inviolable command of compassionate culture and fundamental expression of social justice grandeur. No civilised state shall have authority to inflict death penalty even in the rarest of rare cases, lest it be condemned as guilty of barbarity and devoid of humanity” (7).


1. ‘Malaysian Nagaenthran executed on drugs charges in Singapore’, AlJazeera, 27 April 2022.

2. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (2022, 29 July). Singapore: UN experts call for immediate moratorium on executions for drug offences. 

3. Nachemson, A. (Aug 5, 2022). Singapore executions under scrutiny as more hanged for drugs. 

4.  V.R. Krishna Iyer, ‘Capital Punishment: A Penological Barbarity’, Mainstream, 27 October 2007.

5. Reuters. (2022, June 10). Malaysia renews pledge to abolish mandatory death penalty.

6.  D. Patil, ‘Krishna Iyer: the one who made justice more humane’, Pleaders, 10 September 2021.

7. V.R. Krishna Iyer, ‘Capital Punishment: A Penological Barbarity’, Mainstream, 27 October 2007