Rights Groups Fight for Singapore Murder Reversal

Human rights organizations in Singapore are working feverishly to try to save the life of a convicted murderer who was given a rare stay of execution only to have the prosecution appeal the decision and demand that the death penalty be reinstated.

In 2009, Kho Jabing, a 31-year-old Malaysian national from Sarawak, and a co-defendant were charged with murder after they beat a Chinese construction worker to death with a tree branch in a robbery. Soon arrested, they were convicted of murder, then punishable by hanging under Singapore’s mandatory death penalty law.

The case is unique not only because stays of execution are rare in Singapore but because the stay appears to have been reversed – so far. But the city-state has been cutting back on executions since the decade of the 1990s, when it was determined by the United Nations to maintain the second highest execution rate in the world after Turkmenistan, estimated at 13.83 executions annually per 100,000 of population. Turkmenistan has since abolished capital punishment, along with 140 other nations.

However, Singapore staged only one execution in 2014 and two so far this year. The last execution was in April, for intentional murder.

After Singapore reviewed its laws in 2012 and allowed judges discretion in sentencing for unintentional murder, the High Court resentenced Kho to life in prison and 24 strokes of the cane, a horrifyingly brutal punishment in itself. However, the prosecution appealed. (Unlike many western nations, Singapore gives the prosecution the right to appeal a court decision.)

At Kho’s resentencing, the five-judge Court of Appeal unanimously established that the death penalty should be imposed if the murder he committed exhibited “…viciousness or a blatant disregard for human life.”

However, according to an analysis of the case by Amnesty International, “although all five Supreme Court judges agreed that there was not enough evidence available in Kho’s case to allow for a precise reconstruction of the murder, they failed to agree whether it was possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was particularly vicious.”

Three judges on the Court of Appeal found that Kho’s actions warrant the gallows, while the minority held that the evidence available did not prove that he had hit the victim more than twice, necessary to meet the criteria for “blatant disregard.”

The death penalty was thus re-imposed and with no further avenue for appeal. However, the court stayed their decision for further deliberation. The court goes on holiday at the end of November, at which time the decision on Kho’s life or death presumably will be rendered.

“It has never been established that there was intention to kill,” said Kirsten Han, an activist involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. “It has not been found that he intended to do so. We feel that creates a huge problem, it was not a unanimous decision.”

The holes in the evidence available in the case and the disagreement between the judges “raise questions that go beyond his case,” said Josef Benedict of Amnesty International in a prepared release. “These deal with the impact of the legal reforms of Singapore’s mandatory laws, particularly the use of Singapore’s power to grant clemency. A man could now be killed after such a disputed life and death decision. International safeguards guarantee in all cases the right for anyone sentenced to death to appeal against the death sentence, but Kho Jabing is left without any legal avenues.”

Human rights campaigners have appealed to both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Tony Tan to make the stay of execution permanent.