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Nagaenthran Dharmalingam – a man with intellectual disabilities executed in Singapore | everything you need to know

Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was executed in Singapore on Wednesday 27 April 2022. Nagen, as he is called by his family and friends, was intellectually disabled.

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Countries across the world have laws to protect the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, like Nagen. And under international law, Nagen should not have been executed. Here’s everything you need to know about Nagen – his story, the death penalty in Singapore, how we campaigned to try to stop his execution and abolish the death penalty across the world.

Who was Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam?

Nagen – this is what his family calls him – was a 33 year old man with intellectual disabilities.

He lived in isolation for a third of his life – far from his home and family in Malaysia – having spent the last eleven years on death row.

The Singaporean authorities initially set Nagen’s execution for 10 November 2021. His lawyers filed a last-minute appeal to try and prevent it from going ahead. In a cruel twist of events, the execution was temporarily halted when Nagen tested positive for COVID-19 on the day of the appeal hearing. The appeal would have dealt with evidence that Nagen’s mental health had severely deteriorated and that he was therefore not fit to be executed.

Nagen’s family continually expressed serious concerns about his mental state, as he displayed signs of delusion and did not seem to fully understand that he may be executed.

Nagen’s brother said after visiting him, “I don’t think he has any idea that he’s going to be executed. When I visited him he talked about coming home and eating home-cooked food with our family. It broke my heart that he seemed to think he was coming home.”

After Nagen recovered from COVID-19, Singapore once again started to prepare to execute him. The courts rejected his appeal on 29 March 2022, leaving no further legal avenues open to Nagen. His execution was scheduled for Wednesday 27 April, and his only chance for survival was a pardon from President Halimah Yacob on the advice of the Prime Minister.

“I don’t think he has any idea that he’s going to be executed. When I visited him he talked about coming home and eating home-cooked food with our family. It broke my heart that he seemed to think he was coming home.”

Nagen’s brother

Why was Nagaenthran on death row in Singapore?

In 2009, when he was 21, Nagen lived in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, close to the border with Singapore. He was working as a welder at the time, earning very little. In April of that year, he approached a man he knew for a loan of RM500 (less than £100) so that he could support his father who was about to have a heart operation.

The man took advantage of Nagen’s desperate circumstances and coerced him into carrying a small package of illegal drugs across the Singaporean border in return for this meagre sum.

When Nagen arrived at the immigration checkpoint between Malaysia and Singapore, the authorities stopped him and found the package. The package contained 42g of diamorphine. This is less than three tablespoons.

Nagen was strip-searched by a Sergeant of the Central Narcotics Bureau, who slapped, punched and insulted him. Nagen was ultimately sentenced to death for drug trafficking under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2010.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was amended in 2012 to protect those with “an abnormality of mind” whose crimes were limited to transporting drugs. If their “abnormality of mind” could be proven, their responsibility for their crime would be reduced and their conviction altered from a death sentence to a life sentence.

This should have been applied to Nagen, who suffered from intellectual disabilities and various other mental impairments. But when Nagen’s lawyers applied to the court for him to be re-sentenced to life imprisonment under this new provision, the court upheld his death sentence because it didn’t consider his intellectual disabilities and mental impairments to be severe enough.

What does it mean to have an intellectual disability?

The World Health Organisation has defined “intellectual disability” as being a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information and to learn and apply new skills. This includes impaired intelligence with impaired social functioning which has a lasting effect on development.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides, at Article 1, that persons with disabilities include “those who have long-term … intellectual … impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

Nagen had an IQ of 69, as well as several other mental impairments. Five expert reports submitted to the courts clearly evidence this. International diagnostic standards state that such a low IQ is one of the key indicators of intellectual disability.

How is the death penalty used in Singapore?

The Singaporean government consistently defends its use of the death penalty. They are an outlier compared to other nations – the number of countries voting in favour of UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a halt on executions has consistently increased, from 104 in 2007 to 123 at the most recent vote, in December 2020.

The Singaporean government says the death penalty is part of its ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to crime (drug crime in particular). They claim it is a successful deterrent and an important factor in the nation’s ‘drug-free zone’ policy.1 There is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime, and the vast majority of executions that have taken place in Singapore are of people convicted of drug offences.

When the pandemic struck, Singapore stopped executions for over two years, but that pause is over and today, 30 March 2022, another man, Abdul Kahar bin Othman, was hanged for drug offences. Executions may resume with alarming frequency in 2022, with several other death row prisoners facing imminent execution.

Are people with intellectual disabilities exempt from the death penalty?


International law prohibits the imposition of the death penalty on persons with mental or intellectual disabilities.2

In addition, Singapore’s own Misuse of Drugs Act – under which Nagen was convicted – was amended in 2012 to protect those with “an abnormality of mind” whose crimes were limited to transporting drugs. If the court accepts that the accused has “an abnormality of mind”, their responsibility for the crime is reduced and their sentence will be altered from a death sentence to a life sentence. However, the Singapore courts’ standard for what amounts to “an abnormality of mind” is unreasonably high. This means that many people with intellectual disabilities may not meet it, even if they are considered to have an intellectual disability under international law and international diagnostic standards.

Because of the way this law is applied, Nagen was executed. Sadly, many others like him remain on death row around the world.

What is Singapore’s policy on the death penalty and drugs?

Singapore routinely carries out executions for drug-related offences. In fact, the vast majority of executions have been for drug offences despite international law standards stating the death penalty should only be imposed for ‘the most serious crimes’ involving intentional killing.3

Singapore has consistently claimed that the death penalty is a deterrent for drug offences, but it is well established that the death penalty is not a deterrent for any crime.

Instead, in most cases in Singapore, the death penalty acts as a cruel and torturous punishment for individuals from underprivileged backgrounds who are convicted for being drug mules.

How does the death penalty affect the families of the victims?

The death penalty has an unimaginably distressing effect on the families of those who are sentenced to death.

In Nagen’s case, his family was put in an extremely difficult position when his execution was initially scheduled. On 26 October 2021, Nagen’s family were notified that he would be executed in 15 days’ time, on 10 November 2021. Attached to the letter were nine pages of COVID-related travel regulations.

Nagen’s family live in Malaysia, and the COVID restrictions at the time meant that notification of the execution gave them barely enough time to apply for permission to enter Singapore, secure private transport (they were not permitted to enter on public transport), and find hotel accommodation where the government would permit them to quarantine in order to see Nagen for what would have been the last time.

In addition to dealing with the painful prospect of losing a loved one, Nagen’s family faced reams of red tape and costs that they were unable to afford. When they saw him, it was only through a glass screen.

Nagen’s family returned to Malaysia when his execution was temporarily halted. They were unable to take prolonged time away from their jobs, on which they depend to survive.

On Wednesday 27 April, Nagen’s family had once again travelled to Singapore and Nagen’s last request was to hold his family’s hands.

Why should the death penalty be abolished?

The death penalty is wrong. It is cruel and inhumane. It is irreversible, leaves no room for rehabilitation and does not deter crime. But despite all this, it is still used as a form of punishment all over the world.

Find out more about our death penalty casework.

How did we do in Nagen’s case?

Our caseworkers, lawyers, and campaigners worked tirelessly to stop Nagen’s execution. We supported Nagen’s lawyers in Singapore. Our media team have highlighted Nagen’s case in the media. Our campaigners – along with our supporters – acted on social media by calling for the President of Singapore to pardon Nagen.

Read more about our casework here.

What is a pardon?

A pardon (also known as clemency) may be granted by the State where someone is convicted of a crime. It could relieve someone from either some or all of their sentence.

In Nagen’s case, the President of Singapore could have granted Nagen a pardon on the advice of the Prime Minister. Nagen’s mother applied for a pardon on Nagen’s behalf, and if this were granted, Nagen’s life would have been saved.

How can you help?

Reprieve’s lawyers, investigators and campaigners work around the clock to ensure that we can take on the cases that no one else will. If you want to be the first to hear about breaking human rights stories, sign up to campaign with us today.

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1 Yap, A. and Tan, S., 2020. Capital Punishment in Singapore: A Critical Analysis of State Justifications From 2004 to 2018. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, [online] 9(2), 133-151, p.134. Available at: https://www.crimejusticejournal.com/article/view/1056  [Accessed 24 February 2022].

2Article 10 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities protects the right to life of all people with disabilities. See also United Nations General Assembly Resolutions 71/187 of 2 February 2017; 73/185 of 17 December 2018; 75/183 of 16 December 2020; and the UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2005/59 of 20 April 2005.

3The UN Secretary-General has explained that “most serious crimes” are “intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences”: E/2000/3, para 79, available at: https://undocs.org/E/2000/3  [accessed 24 February 2022]. This view is supported by the Human Rights Council (see A/HRC/27/23, para 29, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session27/Pages/ListReports.aspx [accessed 24 February 2022]) and UN Special Rapporteurs (see e.g. A/HRC/4/20, para 65, available at: https://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/4/20  [accessed 24 February 2022];  A/HRC/10/44, para 66, available at: https://undocs.org/A/HRC/10/44 [accessed 24 February 2022]; A/65/255, para 17, available at: https://undocs.org/A/65/255 [accessed 24 February 2022]. See also General comment No. 36 (2018) on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life. CCPR/C/GC/36, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CCPR_C_GC_36_8785_E.pdf  [accessed 24 February 2022].