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Stay the execution, he’s got Covid

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
9 min read

I’m writing this late at night after a nerve-wrecking, exhausting day. I’m still trying to collect my thoughts. Everything feels surreal, even a little bit ludicrous. I’m glad and relieved, but also horrified and anxious.

Since learning of Nagaenthran’s impending execution on 28 October, I’ve been in touch with his older sister, Sarmila. We got sucked into a logistical nightmare sorting out travel arrangements for members of Nagen’s family to come to Singapore to visit him. In the end, Nagen’s mother, younger brother, younger sister, and cousin came to Singapore, where their days have been split between the prison and the hotel rooms in which they have to quarantine.

The past two weeks have gone by in a blur. Here are some of the things that happened:

In short, Nagen's case has, in a shorter amount of time, drawn more public support and international attention than all the other death row cases I've worked on since 2010.

Yesterday (Monday), Nagen's lawyer M Ravi argued before the High Court (in a closed hearing, over Zoom) that it would be unconstitutional to execute Nagen, given his intellectual impairments. The High Court dismissed the application, but Ravi asked for a stay of execution so he could appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal. An interim stay was granted, which came as a great relief... and then we learnt that the appeal hearing had been scheduled for 2:30pm today, less than 24 hours after the notice of appeal was filed.

This got those of us with prior experience with death row cases really nervous; this happened with Jabing Kho's case in 2016. Back then, his lawyer was told to file a notice of appeal by 11pm, was then told that the appeal hearing would be the next morning. The appeal was dismissed during that hearing itself, then they brought Jabing straight out of court back to prison and hanged him that very afternoon.

This morning, dreading the potential of bad news by the end of the day, my friend Emmy Charissa and I made our way to the Istana, where we hand-delivered personal pleas for clemency for Nagaenthran. I wrote my letter (which I'm sharing at the end of this issue) from the perspective of an anti-death penalty activist, while Emmy's was coming from that of a disabled person with a psychiatric history.

Emmy also submitted this extremely important statement signed by persons with disabilities, organisations of persons with disabilities, and allies from all over the world. Please take the time to read it, because it makes important points about access to justice for persons with disabilities that has implications far beyond Nagen's case.

I headed to court in the afternoon, where there were a bunch of people already waiting to enter the courtroom. In fact, there were so many that, even though I arrived half an hour early, I didn't actually manage to get into the courtroom! It was significant, though, that there were about 30 of us who were stuck outside the courtoom, yet people didn't leave, choosing to wait outside for news.

It didn't take long — we soon learnt that a stay of execution had been granted... because Nagen tested positive for Covid-19. In the light of this unexpected result, the judges decided to adjourn the appeal hearing to a later date that hasn't yet been fixed.

There are so many questions. Death row inmates live in single cells 23 hours a day, and even their visits are conducted behind a pane of glass. How the heck did Nagen, literally one of Singapore's most socially distanced inhabitants, get Covid-19? Why was he brought to the court, then taken away again — what does this mean about when he did his Covid-19 test, and when they got the result? What does it mean for him now? Where will he be quarantined? How will he be treated? How quickly will they schedule a new appeal hearing once he recovers? How quickly will they want to set a new execution date?

I don't have answers to these questions at the moment. What we do know is that, according to his family, Nagen isn't vaccinated. (From what I understand, people in prison have the choice about whether or not to get vaccinated.) His family have also been told that they will no longer be allowed to visit him. Not even video calls are allowed; they'll only be allowed phone calls, although I'm not sure about the length or frequency of these calls. In any case, they'll be heading home tomorrow, because they need to go back to work.

This turn of events also highlights something absolutely grotesque about capital punishment: that someone has to be healthy enough for us to kill. Despite the fact that Nagaenthran has borderline intellectual functioning and other cognitive impairments, the state was determined to hang him; now he's got Covid-19, the judges are talking about "logic, common sense, and humanity".

If Nagen testing positive for Covid-19 means that he can't be executed (presumably because he's ill), then surely it means that he also can't be executed if he's suffering from mental illness, as his brother's account of his mental state appears to suggest? And this is on top of all the long-standing concerns about his low IQ of 69, ADHD, and impaired executive functioning skills. I'm not complaining that he's got a stay, but it's outrageous that, of all the many reasons to not execute Nagen, the one that has made the state stop (for now) is Covid-19.

It's a great relief that there won't be an execution at dawn tomorrow. But we need to keep in mind that the stay is only temporary, and could potentially be lifted very soon. Nagen's life still hangs in a precarious balance, even though his execution will do nothing to deal with the issue of drugs and the drug trade, and only be yet another example of how vulnerable people can be harmed and scapegoated by Singapore's "war on drugs" approach.

If you care about this issue at all, it's important to keep the momentum going. Keep talking about the case, writing to your MPs about it, delivering letters to the Istana, sharing articles, signing/sharing the petition, issuing statements, and doing anything else you can think of to raise public awareness and keep people's attention on Nagen. If you're a social service professional, healthcare worker, counsellor, or community worker, you can sign this letter calling for clemency for Nagen.

It's not over yet. Nagen and his family need us. Let's keep going. ✊


A statement from Nagaenthran’s older sister, Sarmila K Dharmalingam

It took me a long time to be able to get to sleep last night because I was worrying about my brother, and when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and crying, just waiting until 2:30pm for the court hearing today. Our family has been struggling since we received notice of his scheduled execution.

I now feel relaxed and relieved to hear that his execution, scheduled for tomorrow, has been stayed. But I’m only a little bit happy, because I know they haven’t actually stopped the execution, only given it a temporary stay. I’m happy now, but as Nagen’s sister I have to think about the future, and I’m worried that all this will repeat again.

My mother, brother, sister, and cousin are in Singapore but will come home tomorrow. We have been told by the prison that they will not be allowed to visit him anymore, and that we will only be allowed phone calls with him. We don’t know yet how often we will be able to have these phone calls.

I am concerned about my brother Nagen. He has now tested positive for Covid and he will be alone. We are not sure how long he will be quarantined for in prison.


The letter I delivered to the Istana

Dear President Halimah Yacob,

My name is Kirsten Han. For the past 10 years I have assisted a number of families of individuals on death row facing imminent execution. I have walked with mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, following the fencing of the Istana up to the rear gate, to hand-deliver clemency appeals to your office. Today, I am not accompanying a family, but hand-delivering a letter of my own, because Nagaenthran’s family are either back home in Ipoh, or confined to hotel rooms where they are required to serve their Stay-Home-Notice after entering Singapore from Malaysia.

I am sure that you are already aware of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam’s case. After all, you have already rejected his clemency appeal once. I’m writing this letter to implore you to reconsider, or, since the granting of a pardon is something in which the President has to act upon the advice of the Cabinet, to raise the issue with the Cabinet and urge them to allow Nagaenthran’s death sentence to be commuted.

I am making this plea on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Nagaenthran was arrested in 2009, when he was only 21 years old, and sentenced to death in 2010. He only has an IQ of 69, as well as other cognitive impairments. 11 years on death row — living in a cell, alone, for 23 hours a day — is a very long time. According to his family, it has taken a serious toll on his mental health and overall state of mind. He does not need to actually be put to death to have been severely punished for what he did over a decade ago.

I appeal to you for mercy not just on Nagaenthran’s behalf, but also his family’s. Although they have committed no crime, the family of people on death row are also subject to severe punishment on multiple levels, from financial burdens and stressors to devastating mental and emotional trauma. It is a constant pain to live with the thought of a loved one on death row, where, despite being healthy and often young, they exist in the shadow of death.

Losing someone you love is always hard. Losing someone you love to a hanging brings unspeakable pain. Although I have not been through this experience myself, I have witnessed this grief too many times, and know that the trauma and the struggle stays long, long after the trapdoor that opened is shut again.

For Nagaenthran’s family, the notice of his execution came close to Deepavali, and in the middle of a pandemic. On top of their emotional distress, they have had to rush to make arrangements to travel to Singapore at a time when Covid-19 regulations make things much more complicated and expensive than they used to be. Once arrived in Singapore, they have only been allowed to go between the prison — where they sit with a beloved son, brother, and cousin who they know might not have much time left — and their hotel rooms, where there is little distraction from the nightmare that they’re currently going through. Yesterday, they experienced great relief to hear of an interim stay of execution pending an appeal, only to be brought back down to fear and worry when the appeal hearing was scheduled for this afternoon, less than 24 hours later. This is distressing enough as it is; if Nagaenthran is really hanged tomorrow, it will be a deep pain that they will have to carry for the rest of their lives. For this Hindu family, Deepavali will never be the same again.

I have seen you make public statements demonstrating compassion and care for people who are vulnerable and in need of support. I have seen you make comments about mental health and people with disabilities. In writing this letter, I am hoping that you will extend this concern to Nagaenthran, a neurodiverse man who has already paid a heavy price for his mistakes, and to his family, who have already been put through so much.

Executing Nagaenthran will have little effect on the drug trade in Singapore; he is not a high-value member of a drug syndicate, and his life matters little to those who are truly profiting from this illicit industry. As tiny pawn in a larger enterprise, Nagaenthran has long been abandoned by the real drug lords and tycoons; executing him would merely demonstrate that we as society have chosen to sacrifice him too. I believe that we can be and do much better, and that a show of mercy will benefit not just Nagaenthran and his family, but also demonstrate that our society is willing and capable of showing compassion and care over anger and violence.

Right now, there is little time left for Nagaenthran. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I beg you to commute his life sentence.

Yours sincerely,
Kirsten Han

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A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.