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MHA claps back at Richard Branson's 'sweeping assertions' on death penalty case

MHA claps back at Richard Branson's 'sweeping assertions' on death penalty case

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This week, British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group Richard Branson once again spoke up against a death penalty sentence that was carried out this morning at 6am. His comments drew the ire of Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which has since issued a response against Branson's "sweeping assertions".

In a post on Virgin's site, Branson spoke up about the case of Tangaraju Suppiah who was sentenced to death in 2018 for conspiring to smuggle a kilogram of cannabis into Singapore. The case has been widely spoken about by local and international activists particularly because the evidence condemning Suppiah is thought to be insufficient according to the public.

Don't miss: Richard Branson again puts spotlight on SG for 'draconian' death penalty 

MHA responded to Branson's lengthy post on 25 April saying that it wished to "correct some points" made by Branson.

MHA began its statement by laying out the facts of the case. It said: "[Suppiah], a 46-year-old Singaporean, was convicted of abetting the trafficking of 1017.9 grammes of cannabis."

It added that the Misuse of Drugs Act provides for the death penalty if the amount of cannabis is more than 500 grammes and that 1017.9 grammes is more than twice the capital threshold, and sufficient to feed the addiction of about 150 abusers for a week.

"[Suppiah's] case was tried before the High Court of Singapore. Upon examination of all the evidence, including [Suppiah's] defence, the High Court found that the charge against [Suppiah] had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt,' it said. 

It added that Suppiah was represented by legal counsel throughout the court process and that there was evidence "clearly" showing that he was the person coordinating the delivery of drugs, for the purpose of trafficking which was "far from the suggestion" that Suppiah was innocent because he was “not anywhere near the drugs at the time of his arrest” as written by Branson on his blog post.

"[Suppiah] was involved in a case with two others, where his phone numbers were used to communicate with the two others involved in the delivery of the cannabis," wrote MHA.

It continued by saying that Suppiah's defence was that he was not the person communicating with the two others involved in the case. However, the High Court found Suppiah's evidence "unbelievable", and found that he was communicating with the two others and was the one coordinating the delivery and receipt of cannabis to himself, through the two others. The High Court also found that Suppiah had an intention to traffic in the cannabis, it said. 

It is regrettable that Mr Branson, in wanting to argue his case, should resort to purporting to know more about the case than Singapore’s Courts.

MHA added that Singapore's legal system had examined the case "thoroughly and comprehensively" over a period of more than three years.

"[Branson] shows disrespect for Singapore’s judges and our criminal justice system with such allegations," it said before noting that despite "multiple clarifications", Branson continues to make "sweeping assertions" against Singapore’s approach on drugs, including the use of the death penalty on those who traffic in large amounts of drugs.

MHA reiterated that Singapore adopts a zero-tolerance stance against drugs and applies a multi-pronged approach to combat drugs. "The death penalty is an essential component of Singapore’s criminal justice system and has been effective in keeping Singapore safe and secure."

It noted that Branson said in his post that Singaporean authorities have "repeatedly failed" to provide any tangible evidence for the effective deterrent of drug-related crime. "This is untrue," it said.

We have repeatedly set out clear evidence of the deterrent effect of the death penalty in Singapore’s context, which Mr Branson seems to have conveniently ignored.

In the four-year period after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 500 grammes of cannabis, there was a 15 to 19 percentage point reduction in the probability that traffickers would choose to traffic above the capital sentence threshold, said MHA. It also cited studies that found that drug traffickers deliberately restricted the amount of drugs they carried in order not to exceed the capital sentence threshold.  

 A 2021 study conducted in parts of the region outside Singapore, from where some of Singapore’s arrested drug traffickers have come in recent years, shows that most persons in these countries are deterred by the death penalty.

87% believed that the death penalty makes people not want to traffic substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore, and 83% believed the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in discouraging people from trafficking drugs into Singapore, it said. 

"As for Mr Branson’s other allegations about Singapore’s “disproportionate use [of capital punishment] on minorities, an obsession with small-scale drug traffickers, and the widely reported harassment of human rights defenders and capital defence lawyers” – these assertions are false," MHA said. 

We have responded to the allegations before, and it is regrettable that he continues to assert these falsehoods.

MHA concluded its statement by noting that Singapore's policies on drugs and the death penalty are derived from the local experience and that the approached has worked thus far. "We will continue charting our own path according to what is in the best interests of Singaporeans. Mr Branson is free to advocate his beliefs for his own countrymen, but he should respect Singaporeans’ choice," it said. 

MAH was responding to a lengthy blog post in which Branson defended Suppiah and argued against the use of the death penalty for his case. 

Branson's defense of Suppiah 

Branson began his post by saying that he has long spoken up against the death penalty and its use around the world before stating that in the coming days, Singapore is planning to carry out yet another execution.

"If the state gets its way, [Suppiah] will be hanged on Wednesday at Singapore’s Changi Prison, convicted under more than dubious circumstances for conspiracy to smuggle about one kilo of cannabis,' he wrote before saying that Singapore "may be about to kill an innocent man".

Branson continued by saying that Suppiah's case is "shocking on multiple levels" in reference to the fact that Suppiah was allegedly not "anywhere near these drugs" at the time of his arrest. 

"This was largely a circumstantial case that relied on inferences. Investigators and prosecutors acted on the fact that his mobile numbers were stored on the actual drug traffickers’ phone, interpreting phone records and text messages as 'proof' of his involvement," said Branson. 

"Tangaraju’s alleged co-conspirator – who was actually caught in possession of the drugs – pleaded guilty to a non-capital offence. The other three people connected to the case were “discharged not amounting to an acquittal” by the prosecution," he continued. 

Branson noted that Singapore, as in other countries, sets a high bar for criminal convictions, and the standard of proof required is to establish culpability “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

"Even setting aside my fundamental opposition to the death penalty and the grave injustice of killing people for non-violent drug offences, it appears to me that [Suppiah's] conviction didn’t meet that standard at all," 

He said:

The country’s government has repeatedly claimed that its draconian laws serve as an effective deterrent of drug-related crime. 

He continued by saying that Singaporean authorities have "repeatedly failed to provide any tangible evidence for that assertion."

Branson also noted that in Singapore, the spotlight has been on capital punishments due to its "disproportionate use on minorities, an obsession with small-scale drug traffickers, and the widely reported harassment of human rights defenders and capital defense lawyers."

Calling on the Singapore Government to "pause" to review the case and to grant a reprieve, Branson added that Singapore is an "otherwise wonderful country" and noted that it is sad to see "some of its policies harking back to colonialism, and even reminiscent of medieval times." 

Not the first time

This is not the first time that Branson has brawled with the Singapore government over its death penalty laws. Just last November, the Singapore government went on the offensive by calling out Branson for declining an open, live, televised the debate with the government regarding his views on the death penalty.

Calling his reasons “lame” and saying that they “do not hold water”, the Ministry of Home affairs (MHA) re-emphasised that Branson has been “publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore”, using his celebrity status to campaign to change Singapore’s position.

“If his facts are wrong, it is important this be publicly exposed. If Branson is convinced he is correct, he should take up our offer of a debate, and not offer lame excuses to opt out,” MHA said.

According to Branson’s earlier statements, the British Mogul said that the debate would reduce a “nuanced discourse into soundbites”. As such he declined the debate on penalties imposed on drug traffickers in Singapore – an area that MHA claimed Branson has been “making untrue statements about” for “some time now”.

On Branson’s suggestion that the Singapore government engages Singaporeans instead of him on the death penalty, MHA said that in 2022 alone, the government had engaged in discussions on the death penalty with thousands of Singaporeans. It added that in Singapore, important matters are discussed in Parliament by MPs, as elected representatives of the people. The discussions reflect not just the Government’s view, but the different perspectives of Singaporeans, and the death penalty has been discussed in Parliament several times in recent years.

MHA added that it is also not for Branson to tell the Singapore government who in Singapore it should talk to, and that some of the names he shared are “quite clearly among those who have been feeding him misinformation and untruths”. On Branson’s point of Singapore looking outward to what happening in the UK, US, Europe, and other parts of the world, MHA said it does so, and what it sees is “the high rates of drug abuse and drug related crime, and the countless lives lost and families destroyed.”

“Singapore is not completely free from the drug menace either, but our drug situation is under much better control. We adapt what works to our own situation and avoid practices that have failed […] We ask only for our right to choose our own path, to continue keeping Singapore and Singaporeans safe. The elected government of Singapore is fully capable of taking our own decisions, explaining them to Singaporeans, and getting support for them, including at the polls,” MHA added.

Related articles:

SG govt goes on the offensive calling Richard Branson's debate decline 'lame'
Richard Branson's decline of SG govt debate: A missed opportunity?
Richard Branson declines public debate with SG law minister

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