Wed, May 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Singapore activist vow to persist in campaign against death penalty


By Martin Abbugao  /  AFP , SINGAPORE


When family and friends paid a final visit to Shanmugam Murugesu on the eve of his execution last Friday, he urged them to press on with a rejuvenated campaign to end the death penalty in Singapore.

There were eight other convicts waiting to be hanged at Changi Prison and he did not want them to die in isolation, one of the visitors recalled him saying.

Murugesu, 38, a former soldier, jet ski champion and divorced father of two, was executed for trafficking 1,029.8g of marijuana, yet civil rights activists who had mounted the futile attempt to save him have vowed to fight on despite admitting it will be an uphill battle.

Interest stirred through unprecedented public efforts to save Murugesu by his family, friends and civil rights advocates has injected new life into the anti-death penalty campaign.

Emboldened by the fledgling support, the campaigners hope to further galvanize public opinion at a time when the government is opening up and allowing the public to speak out more on controversial issues.

A candlelit vigil for Murugesu held at a local hotel this month attracted about 100 people -- activists and opposition politicians as well as ordinary citizens, many of whom bought and wore T-shirts opposing the death penalty.

The participants listened to speeches, poems and music such as Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released and Bruce Springsteen's Dead Man Walking, which was the soundtrack of a 1996 movie about efforts to save a death row convict in the US.

"I feel that tonight's event is a display of courage. I think we need the courage of a lot of people for things to change," said Iris Koh, a music teacher who volunteered to sing at the evening vigil.

"I feel that courage is the only thing that can overcome death. I was quite scared [at first]. However, I'm a teacher, so I also feel that the best example I can give is not through words but through deeds," she said.

Murugesu's lawyer, M. Ravi, said that fear in this tightly controlled city-state remained a concern preventing more people from openly supporting the campaign.

In an example of the extent authorities still monitor dissenters, an "open mike session" at the vigil in which the audience was invited to speak was abruptly ended just after the first speaker began to talk.

Organizers said that plainclothes police officers at the event stepped in and asked them to scrap that portion of the program.

Singapore, a bustling island-nation with some of the toughest laws in the world against drug trafficking, maintains that capital punishment is a crime deterrent contributing to the safety and security its residents now enjoy.

The death sentence is mandatory for trafficking more than 15g of heroin, 30g of cocaine and 500g of cannabis, as well as for other crimes such as murder, treason, kidnapping and certain firearm offences.

For drugs, a person caught in possession of illegal substances is assumed to be trafficking, thus putting the burden of proof on to the accused.

The death penalty "is part of a range of punishments which has helped keep crime rates and drug abuse rates in Singapore low," the Home Affairs Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

"We weigh the right to life of the convicted against the rights of victims and the rights of the community to live and work in peace and security. As a result, Singapore is one of the safest places in the world to live and work in," it said.

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