On Feb. 17, 2008, a 24-year-old Sarawakian migrant working in a rag and bone company in Singapore was drinking an apparently potent substance called “Narcissus Ginseng Wine Tonic” with four friends when they got the idea to rob someone. After they split up and three of them went their separate way, Jabing and his friend, Galing Anak Kujat, also from Sarawak, went after two Chinese workers whom they assaulted for the cellphone of one, named Cao Ruyin.
Jabing sneaked up in back of Cao and brained him with a tree branch. The victim sustained 14 skull fractures and a brain injury and died six days later. Jabing sold the cellphone for S$300 and the five split the money, with the extra S$50 going for wine.
The celebration didn’t last long. Jabing and Galing were arrested six days after the crime. In 2010, a high court sentenced the pair to death by hanging under what was then Singapore’s mandatory statute. But the intervening six years illustrate the changing nature of Singapore’s death penalty laws, in the meantime subjecting Jabing to a distressing trip through the justice system, which now is likely to kill him despite having previously vacated and otherwise delayed his death sentence.
24 Hours from Death
Jabing was 24 hours from being hanged in November last year when his lawyers saved him with a stay of execution, if temporarily. He and his allies, including many of the world’s human rights organizations, are now hoping against hope that a clemency petition to President Tony Tam will save him. Tam, however, has already rejected clemency despite widespread appeals attempting to get him to reverse his decision. Sources in Singapore say that is probably unlikely.
The case has attracted the attention of a wide range of representatives of other countries and human rights organizations including the United Nations Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, which issued a statement in April after Jabing’s sentence was most recently upheld by the Court of Appeal.
“We are gravely concerned that Mr. Kho is at imminent risk of hanging as the court has lifted the stay of execution,” said Laurent Meillan, OHCHR’s acting regional representative in Bangkok, in a prepared statement. “We are also concerned that he has been forced to endure years of immense suffering as his sentence has been changed on a number of occasions.”
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, called Singapore’s decision to defend the death penalty “a further indication of complete disregard for international human rights standards.”
Death Penalty Stance Changes
Whatever happens to Jabing, over the past two decades Singapore’s approach to capital murder has changed markedly. In the mid-1990s, the country had the world’s second-highest execution rate, estimated by the United Nations at 12.83 executions per million people. The highest was Turkmenistan, which has since abolished the death penalty.
Singapore has undergone a revolution of sorts. With an unofficial ban in place, it didn’t execute anyone between 2011 and 2013 although executions resumed in 2014 with two and in 2015 with four. Jabing is the first to face the gallows in 2016 although there are believed to be about 30 individuals on death row. Singapore doesn’t print figures and its executions are not publicized. Normally the family receives a letter a week before the execution, scheduled quietly and with only the letter for advance notice.
The justice system received a good deal of unwelcome notice in 2010, when a British author named Alan Shadrake wrote a book, Once a Jolly Hangman, that charged the Singapore judiciary system with an appetite for hangings of the poor and the young for murder, drug trafficking and firearms offences, but allowing high-ranking criminals, wealthy foreigners and well-connected drug lords to escape.
Shadrake made the mistake of flying back into Singapore for the book launch and was promptly arrested and charged with 14 counts of contempt of court. He ended up spending six weeks in a Singapore prison.
Bell Tolls for Murderers
Jabing and Galing were sentenced in July of 2010. At that time, conviction for murder earned a mandatory death sentence. Both appealed, with Galing’s lawyers arguing that Jabing had led the way against Galing’s wishes, but that he had gone along with the crime. His conviction was downgraded to “robbery with hurt,” as the statutes call it, in May of 2011. Galing ended up receiving 18.6 years in prison and 19 strokes of the cane.
In 2012, as Singaporean attitudes began to change – although 95 percent of the general public approve of the death penalty – with the parliament amending the penal code to allow for limited discretion in capital cases, permitting judges to hand down life sentences with caning should circumstances warrant. All death row inmates were allowed to have their death sentences reviewed by a High Court Judge.
In November 2013, Jabing’s lawyers appeared before Justice Tay Yong Kwang to argue that the Narcissus Ginseng Wine Tonic, which had been classified by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore as containing excessive levels of methanol in 2009 could have poisoned him to the point where it affected his mental state.
Although Tay rejected the submission since it hadn’t been raised at either the trial or the 2011 appeal, the judge downgraded Jabing’s sentence to life imprisonment and partly because of his age and partly because the branch he picked up to brain Cao was lying on the pavement nearby and that the attack was “opportunistic and improvisational and not part of a prearranged plan.
Jabing’s celebration of deliverance – although 24 strokes of the cane is itself a barbaric form of punishment – didn’t last long. The prosecution appealed. On Jan. 14, 2015, three of five judges in the Court of Appeal again sentenced Jabing to death. Two of the five dissented, saying the condemned man had been on death row for six years and that he had earlier been given a life sentence with caning.
“We urge Your Excellency to be merciful and to commute the death sentence of Kho Jabing to one of life,” said a letter requesting clemency signed by 14 Singaporean citizens. “Our judicial system is the best in the world. We cannot and should not allow this case to tarnish this image. To us, it is a clear case of bias because the judgement of the majority reveals this when the majority judges refused to review findings of fact made in the CA (Conviction) decision.”
There are no more legal avenues open. “Jabing’s only hope is for the Singapore cabinet to advise the President to grant him clemency,” the 14 Singaporeans wrote in their appeal for clemency. “It is a long shot, but Jabing’s family are ready to try. And as long as they are willing to keep fighting, we will continue to support and help them however we can.”