Hanging Mules in Singapore

"He is a good boy," Cheong Kah Pin whispers, "but they took him away."

He scrunches up his tear-streaked face, uses the back of his hand to rub his eyes. His anguish is palpable. "Please help. Please." Cheong is living a parent's worst nightmare. His 28-year-old son, Chun Yin, sits on death row in Singapore, convicted in 2010 of smuggling 2.7 kg of heroin into the country. It's a harsh punishment for a first offender. But under Singapore's laws, judges have little choice but to impose a mandatory death penalty. Anyone caught with more than 15g of heroin is presumed to be trafficking, and once found guilty, will almost certainly be hanged.

Chun Yin is not alone. A long string of drug mules have been strung up in the island republic The issue has come to the fore now in particular in the wake of the prosecution of a British author, Alan Shadrake, for allegedly insulting Singapore in his book Once a Jolly Hangman for its eager use of the hangman's noose in a way that casts doubt on its image as a strict but fair state.

Tough Stand

It's not clear how many drug mules Singapore sends to the gallows each year, since the government doesn't publish figures. But the city-state and neighboring Malaysia have some of the most draconian drug laws in the world. Supporters say they are necessary in order to prevent what Singapore's Law Minister K Shanmugum describes as an "unstoppable stream of people" from dealing drugs.

Opponents disagree. They say the law targets those low down in the supply chain – mules like Chun Yin who may or may not be aware of what they were carrying – while allowing the real culprits to go free. Cheong says Chun Yin was tricked by an acquaintance who had promised him a holiday in Burma and a nice bit of cash in exchange for carrying gold bars into Singapore. The father and son duo ran a small but profitable business selling DVDs across the strait in Johor Bahru and were not desperate for money. Cheong says he didn't want Chun Yin to go but relented in the end.

"I told him to come back soon. Come back because I can't run the business on my own."

Lawyer M Ravi, Singapore's leading anti-death penalty lawyer, calls the policy "unconscionable".

"It's a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't take into account mitigating factors or the personal circumstances of the accused," he says. "What kind of law is this?"

Ravi looks exhausted when we meet. He's a somewhat controversial figure, even among anti-death penalty campaigners. Where some advocate taking a softer approach, Ravi doesn't shy away from a more confrontational stance. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal rejected his request for a judicial review of the powers of Singapore's president in clemency proceedings, as well as of statements made by Shanmugum about the mandatory death penalty.

"These are important questions," Ravi says. "I know it might be unpopular to ask, but a life's at stake, I have to do my job."

Yong's Story

The life in question belongs to another former mule, a 23-year-old whose story has triggered an unprecedented wave of sympathy in Singapore and his native Malaysia. Not yet 19 when he was caught with 47.27g of heroin, Yong Vui Kong came from a broken home, grew up in extreme poverty and throughout his teens, struggled to care for a mother with a mental illness. He was also poorly educated and impressionable – a prime target for drug syndicates. Family members say he is now a changed person who doesn't deserve to die. More than 100,000 people agree and have signed a petition pleading for a second chance for him.

Singapore's Court of Appeal was unmoved. In a unanimous decision, it upheld Yong's sentence and disagreed with Ravi that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. Yong is now preparing his petition for clemency.

"There's a possibility he's been wronged"

Singapore and Malaysia's tough stance on drugs has drawn flak from various human rights organizations. Amnesty International is a regular critic. In Kuala Lumpur recently, the organization's Nora Murat said there is no proof the mandatory death penalty acts as a deterrent against crime and together with Chun Yin's family, urged authorities to reexamine his case.

Unlike Yong, who has admitted his guilt and is seeking clemency on the basis of his youth, ignorance and willingness to change, Chun Yin maintains to this day, that he never intended to smuggle drugs. Cheong says Chun Yin was tricked by an acquaintance who had promised him a holiday in Burma and a nice bit of cash in exchange for carrying gold bars into Singapore.

Family members point to the fact that Chun Yin had even left a copy of his e-ticket and passport details inside the suitcase containing the heroin.

"Why would he do that and risk being caught?" Cheong asks.

Upon his arrest, Chun Yin also gave officials at Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau, or CNB, the telephone number and a detailed description of "Lau De," the man whom he said had arranged the trip to Burma. Investigators did not follow up on the lead. But in handing down the death sentence, High Court Judge Choo Han Teck described the CNB's lapse as "immaterial" to the case.

The judgment has triggered a minor uproar in Malaysia.

"How can they not investigate? There's a possibility he's been wronged," says human rights lawyer Ngeow Chow Ying. "We feel this young man deserves our help."

Activists say Chun Yin's case is a classic example of how drug laws, enacted to protect the general population, can lead to an injustice. The presumption of guilt is hard to rebut. Couple that with the fact that a judge's hands are tied when it comes to sentencing, and the odds are stacked against the mule. The intention to commit a crime might not be relevant so long as an accused person is caught with the requisite amount of drugs.

No Apologies

Singapore makes no apologies for its stand. In a written statement issued during the 2009 session of the UN Human Rights Council, it said:

"[W]e strongly disagree that States should refrain from using the death penalty in relation to drug-related offences. The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore…"

Critics have been quick to point out a major inconsistency in the position.

"If the Singapore government is serious about tackling the scourge of drugs," says Rachel Zeng, who is a member of the Singapore Anti-death Penalty Campaign, "then it should take a good look at its cozy relations with Burma, which is a known heroin producer."

Malaysia, Ready for Change?

Over in Malaysia, there are signs change could be afoot. Yong Vui Kong's case has been a catalyst. "The support has been tremendous," says Ngeow. "His story has really struck a chord with many people."

The "Save Yong Vui Kong" Facebook group has drawn more than 23,000 fans. Several newspapers are now running a weekly column featuring letters from Yong to a friend outside prison. Last year, the Malaysian government even sent a letter, through its Foreign Ministry, pleading for mercy on his behalf.

Most telling perhaps are comments from the de facto Law Minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, made during the height of the Save Yong Vui Kong campaign in 2010. Nazri was quoted as saying that it was time for Malaysia to abolish the death penalty. Among the reasons he cited – the fact that it did not seem to be deterring crimes like drug trafficking and murder. But he also added that the country lacked the political will to change things.

The Case of Noor Atiqah

Some activists are hoping that the case of a Singapore drug mule sentenced to death in Malaysia will bring about that transformation. Noor Atiqah M. Lasim, a 27-year-old single mother, was arrested at Kuala Lumpur's Low Cost Carrier Terminal on the 5th of January 2009. Immigration officials found 342.1g of heroin and 30.3g of monoacethymorphine hidden inside a bag she was carrying. Noor Atiqah's supporters say she had no idea she was transporting drugs. They say she was duped into becoming an unwitting mule by her Nigerian boyfriend.

Ravi, who has met Noor Atiqah's family, is cautiously optimistic about her case. Lawyers are still discussing the best course of action, but there is talk of a constitutional challenge to the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia. Activists hope that if that happens, and Noor Atiqah succeeds, Singapore's government might feel compelled to reconsider its position.

"Renew. Rehab. Restart."

There's a photo taken outside Changi Prison that's making its way around some circles on the Internet. The picture shows Yong's brother, Yun Leong, signing a piece of paper held up by Cheong.

Time is running out for Chun Yin and his family members are making a desperate last push to save his life. Over the past few weeks, they've collected thousands of signatures in support of a call for Singaporean authorities to stay his execution and reopen his case. His punishment, they say, should be for smuggling gold, not drugs.

It's a painstaking, heartbreaking exercise only someone like Yun Leong can understand. Just months ago, he too was out on the streets with his siblings, canvassing support for their own brother. Their campaign climaxed with a visit to the back entrance of Singapore's presidential palace, the Istana. There, they handed over files containing 109,346 signatures to a security guard who promptly told them to leave. The family's response was to get on their knees, begging Singapore to spare Yong's life.

Supporters who've seen the photo of Yun Leong and Cheong speak of how moved they are by the younger man's show of solidarity, his willingness to stand with those facing a similar plight. What they don't realize though is the awful irony of the situation. Had the photographer taken a wider angle, they would have seen some big, bold words behind the two Malaysians.

They form the prison's motto – Renew. Rehab. Restart.