Richard Branson slams Singapore for planning to execute man for smuggling 1 kilo of cannabis

April 24, 2023, 12:15 PM UTC
“Singapore is an otherwise wonderful country, so it’s very sad to see some of its policies harking back to colonialism, and even reminiscent of medieval times,” Branson wrote.
John Lamparski—Getty Images

British billionaire Richard Branson renewed his criticism of Singapore’s death penalty for drug traffickers, following the city-state’s plan to execute a man this week for smuggling in one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cannabis.

Branson, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy that seeks to reduce the criminalization of drug use, voiced his concern in an over 600-word long blog post published Monday. He argued that Tangaraju Suppiah didn’t deserve to be executed, with the 46 year-old Singapore national’s punishment set to be carried out Wednesday. 

“Singapore is an otherwise wonderful country, so it’s very sad to see some of its policies harking back to colonialism, and even reminiscent of medieval times,” Branson wrote.

Tangaraju was sentenced to death in 2018 after being found guilty of smuggling more than 500 grams of cannabis, the threshold for imposing capital punishment in the city-state. He failed in subsequent legal appeals to overturn the sentence, including a petition to Singapore’s president for clemency.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs and the anti-drug agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Branson’s latest criticism.

The country’s Central Narcotics Bureau said in a statement Saturday that “Tangaraju was accorded full due process under the law, and had access to legal counsel throughout the process.” Capital punishment is used “only for the most serious crimes” such as trafficking significant quantities of drugs which can cause “very serious harm” to wider society, the agency said.

Activists have alleged that Tangaraju’s conviction relies mainly on statements from his police interrogation, taken without a lawyer and interpreter present. Singapore courts have in the past affirmed that those arrested are only entitled to consult legal counsel after a “reasonable time” was allowed for the police to conduct investigations.

Authorities in the city-state have long bristled at international criticism of its tough stance on drugs, arguing that it is not unique among nations in adopting capital punishment, and its non-compromising approach has helped to push down drug usage.

Branson wasn’t alone in criticizing capital punishment in Singapore. Human rights group Amnesty International called last week for a halt to Tangaraju’s execution, reiterating its stance for a moratorium on the death penalty in the city-state. 

A last-ditch effort by Tangaraju to get permission to review the decision of Singapore’s Court of Appeal to uphold his sentence, was rejected earlier this year, with the court saying he has “failed to show a legitimate basis” to do so.

This wasn’t the first time Branson has questioned Singapore’s use of death penalty to deter drug trafficking. In a blog post in October, he had cited the execution of a Malaysian national with “documented intellectual disability.” 

Singapore’s government invited Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, to debate law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam live on television. The billionaire declined, saying then that the format “cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service.”

Activists have also been critical of the financial and trading hub for accelerating the pace of capital punishment. Most recent statistics from the Singapore Prison Service show that it executed 11 inmates last year, all for drug-related offenses, compared to zero in 2020 and 2021 during a pandemic-induced pause.

The government has also been unflinching in its stance, even as regional nations rethink their drug policies. Lawmakers in its closest neighbor, Malaysia, voted earlier this month in favor of abolishing the mandatory death penalty and lifelong imprisonment, while Thailand decriminalized cannabis last year. 

“Of course it creates more challenges, because the more the availability of drugs, the more challenging it is to deal with it, but by and large, the vast majority of Singaporeans understand that drugs are bad for society,” said Shanmugam in an interview with Bloomberg TV last September, when asked about the changes in Thailand.

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