Malaysia on Friday announced a stop to the mandatory death penalty – required death sentences for some crimes, including nonviolent drug trafficking offenses. Rights groups cautiously welcomed the move.
The country imposed a moratorium on execution in 2018, but the death penalty is to remain on the books. Moving forward, judges will have the discretion to impose alternative penalty for the 23 crimes that carry death sentences.
“This shows the government’s emphasis on ensuring that the rights of all parties are protected and guaranteed,” Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, said in a statement, adding that relevant laws would be amended to reflect the cabinet’s decision.
The decision “is an important step forward,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, but “we have been down this road before, with successive Malaysian governments promising on human rights but ultimately delivering very little.”
“The Malaysian government loves to float ideas about human rights initiatives because it knows the international community has a short attention span and will take this as a sign of Malaysia progressing,” the statement continued.
The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, a group founded in Hong Kong that advocates for death penalty abolition across the region, cited the move as a step in the right direction, saying that current laws don’t give courts the flexibility to rule on a case-by-case basis.
“In addition to abolishing the mandatory death penalty, critical reform, including but not limited to mental health and criminal culpability; redefining drug offenses to account for drug mules and other exploited individuals within the drug trade and strengthening rehabilitative justice and victim support system needs to be considered,” the group tweeted.
The announcement comes at a consequential moment. In April, Malaysia’s prime minister and foreign minister twice asked the Singaporean government to grant clemency to 33-year-old Malaysian national Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who faced the death penalty in Singapore after having been found guilty of trafficking heroin into the country in 2009. The Foreign Ministry offered to transfer Nagaenthran, who was intellectually disabled, back to Malaysia.
After Nagaenthran was hanged, Human Rights Watch legal adviser Linda Lakhdir wrote that the communication between Malaysia and Singapore highlighted a hypocrisy: Nagaethran would have likely faced capital punishment at home.
According to rights group Amnesty International, at least 270 people have been executed in Malaysia since 1980, mostly for drug offenses. In a recently published report, the NGO noted that it had insufficient information to provide a credible figure for the number of death sentences and executions in the country in 2021, despite seeing a spike in death sentences across the region during the pandemic.
This week, Myanmar announced scheduled executions for two men accused of terrorism – marking the first judicial death sentences in the country in decades.
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