Nazira Lajim Hertslet can’t help but rave about her brother Nazeri’s photos.
“Isn’t he so tall and handsome,” she said of a series of photos of the 64-year-old grandfather dressed in casual clothes.
He is smiling in a photo, standing against a curtain of white flowers and even appears playful in some shots. But it was not a happy occasion.
These are the last photos taken of Nazeri Bin Lajim before he was executed in Singapore for drug trafficking in July.
Arrested in 2012 and convicted of trafficking 33.89 grams of heroin, Nazeri was hanged at dawn – the fifth of 11 inmates sent to the city-state’s gallows so far this year for drug offenses. The most recent execution was that of an unnamed 55-year-old Singaporean who was hanged early October, according to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
In a statement to CNN, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) said it offers prisoners “the opportunity to have their photo taken in clothing that is sent by their families.
“This is done to allow family members to have recent photos of their loved one,” SPS said. “The decision whether or not to take the photographs rests solely with the prisoner.”
Nazira said the gesture brought her some comfort and relief in a system that has inflicted “so much pain and cruelty” on her.
“He looks so happy and strong – the strength it must have taken from him on this shoot.”
Singapore is adamant that capital punishment works deter drug traffickers and must remain in place to maintain public safety. Three reports commissioned and released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) this week detailed “very strong support among Singaporeans” for the use of the death penalty for serious crimes like drug trafficking. In a study of 2,000 local respondents, more than 70% thought executions were more effective than life imprisonment in deterring drug traffickers, the government said.
But even as authorities ramp up death sentences and executions, activists have noted the increase in the size and frequency of recent drug seizures.
On the same day the local man was executed, police arrested six people in two raids which yielded 104 grams of ketamine, 10 LSD patches and 2.28 kilograms of cannabis – enough cannabis to ‘feed the addiction’ about 330 attackers for a week”. read a press release from the CNB.
Rocky Howe, a member of the local abolitionist movement Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), said there had been a noticeable increase in death sentences, at least 10 for drug trafficking this year, according to his calculations.
“For every life lost, there will be a new trafficker,” Howe added. “We have to stop and ask if the death penalty is really successful in deterring people from smuggling drugs into Singapore, as the government says.”
Under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, anyone caught trafficking or importing or exporting certain amounts of illegal drugs is subject to the mandatory death penalty.
The death penalty applies to traffickers transporting methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine or cannabis products above a certain threshold. In Singapore, the threshold for heroin is 15 grams or more. By comparison, under US federal trafficking sanctions, first-time offenders caught trafficking 100 to 999 grams of heroin face prison sentences ranging from 5 to 40 years. Longer and harsher penalties potentially apply if use causes death or serious injury.
Singapore ruling party ministers say the threat of capital punishment is necessary to prevent the city-state from being awash in drugs in a region that is a global hotspot for drug trafficking.
In May, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the “scale and scope” of the methamphetamine and synthetic drug trade in East and Southeast Asia was “breathtaking”. In Singapore, methamphetamine was the top drug of concern in 2021, according to an Asia and Pacific Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Information Center (APAIC) briefing note.
Methamphetamine seizures and use fell during that year, APAIC reported, but heroin seizures hit an all-time high.
“Drug demand indicators also point to an increase in heroin use, with experts’ perception of an increase in drug use for the first time since 2012,” the briefing note said. “The number of heroin treatment admissions also increased, surpassing 500 people for the first time since 2013.”
Despite the death penalty, big cannabis seizures are also regularly reported in Singapore. A handful of record transports have made headlines in recent years – the largest amounting to more than two million Singapore dollars ($1.7 million).
In a five-page statement to CNN that referenced government-backed reports and statistics, Singapore’s MHA said it would be “wrong to draw the conclusion that drug seizures indicate that trafficking rates continue to decline. increase despite the death penalty in force”.
“On the contrary, without capital punishment, drug traffickers would be more daring and traffic larger amounts of drugs in Singapore,” the statement said.
Until recently, Singapore and some of its closest neighbors were united in their tough approach to the war on drugs.
Rights groups believe that Vietnam is one of the biggest executioners in the region.
The executions are a state secret, but in a rare Public Security Ministry report made public and published on state media in 2017, 429 executions were revealed to have taken place in prisons nationwide between 2013 and 2016. Current numbers on the death row are also not known, rights groups say.
After a pause in 2021, military-ruled Myanmar has also carried out executions this year – that of two prominent democracy activists who were executed in July after being accused by the junta of “terrorist acts” – causing fear and concern to those who remained behind bars.
But other countries have taken different paths.
Malaysia, Singapore’s closest neighbour, removed drug trafficking from its list of crimes punishable by death in 2018 and in June announced moves to abolish the mandatory death penalty.
Indonesia, which like Singapore has a long history of executing those convicted of crimes such as terrorism, murder and drug trafficking, is now considering introducing a “probationary death penalty”, which officials say will will allow judges to pronounce death sentences with probationary periods of 10 years. years if an accused “shows remorse” or proves that he did not play a major role in the crime committed.
However, Singapore is unlikely to change its mind about its approach to drugs, which has been key to preserving its global reputation as a thriving financial and travel hub, local experts say.
“Every country has the right to choose how it deals with the most serious crimes, including whether (or not) to apply the death penalty,” said Eugene Tan, professor of law at Singapore Management University. . Tan, who once served as an appointed member of Singapore’s parliament, said the courts are “not handing down death sentences lightly”.
“The government’s hardline attitude toward drugs stems from a longstanding commitment to law and order,” Tan said.
And because Singapore is a major transportation hub close to many regional centers of drug production, Tan said it was “unlikely to follow in the footsteps of other countries in liberalizing drug policies. “. “The Singapore government believes that the drug situation will deteriorate rapidly if it relaxes its stance as other countries have done in recent years,” he said.
UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia, Jeremy Douglas, told CNN in May that if Southeast Asian countries want to get drug trafficking under control, they need to change their approach to the problem.
Governments should treat drug use and addiction as health issues, not criminal matters, through “public health education, provision of care and support, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes” , did he declare.
“There is also no evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on drug trafficking,” Douglas added.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International noted that “relatively small amounts of drugs” were typically reported in conviction cases in Singapore, indicating that convicted traffickers were those who held “lower-ranking positions in drug trafficking networks”.
This raises the question of whether their deaths would “significantly disrupt drug trafficking”, the spokesperson said.
But in its statement to CNN, Singapore’s MHA said “first-hand accounts” showed how many traffickers were deliberately trafficking below the legal threshold.
“Drug traffickers know capital punishment, but traffic for money,” the ministry said. “The traffickers make a cynical calculation to traffic drugs for personal gain, without considering the thousands of lives they would destroy.”
It has been three months since Nazeri’s life ended.
Her sister has some of her photos saved on her phone. “I look at the pictures whenever I miss him,” she said.
“We didn’t ask for them to be taken away but it’s still a nice gesture,” she said, adding that the family had been asked to provide outfits.
“I don’t know how this practice came about, why the photos were taken, but it shows how (disconnected) the prison and justice system is,” she said.
“Because in the end, they killed my brother.”