Man sentenced to death via Zoom call in Singapore

20 May 2020, 12:07 | Updated: 20 May 2020, 12:24

Singapore's courts delivered a death sentence via video call due to lockdown restrictions
Singapore's courts delivered a death sentence via video call due to lockdown restrictions. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A man has been sentenced to death via Zoom call in Singapore for drug trafficking offences amid the country's lockdown restrictions.

It is the first time capital punishment has been issued remotely in the Asian city-state and the second of two known cases globally - the other occurring in Nigeria.

Punithan Genasan, 37 and from Malaysia, was told on Friday via a video call that he would be hanged, following his involvement in masterminding a heroin deal in 2011.

He was found to be complicit in trafficking at least 28.5g of heroin by coordinating two couriers in 2011, court documents showed.

Genasan denied any connection to the pair, but his defence was rejected.

Strict lockdown measures are in force across Singapore, which has one of the highest rates of coronavirus in Asia with more than 29,000 cases and 22 deaths, plus one of the highest number of infections per one million people.

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Workers spraying pesticides in Singapore as part of the fight against dengue fever
Workers spraying pesticides in Singapore as part of the fight against dengue fever. Picture: PA

A spokesperson for the country's supreme court told Reuters the case involving Genasan was conducted online due to the restrictions and “for the safety of all involved in the proceedings.”

Human rights groups have criticised the courts for issuing a death sentence via Zoom call, branding it "inhumane".

However, the 37-year-old's lawyer, Peter Fernando, did not object to the verdict being delivered by video call, adding that the judge could be heard clearly. However, he is considering an appeal.

No other legal arguments were presented during the call.

California-based tech company Zoom did not immediately respond to Reuters for comment, and neither did the Attorney General’s Chambers, the public prosecutor in the case.

Essential cases in the country have been held remotely, but many court hearings have been adjourned during its lockdown which is set to partially ease on 1 June.

The city-state has a zero-tolerance approach to illegal drugs and over the years has hanged hundreds of people - including dozens of foreigners - for narcotics offences, according to rights groups.

It is one of only four countries known to still execute people for drug-related offences, according to Amnesty International.

“Whether via Zoom or in person, a death sentence is always cruel and inhumane," said the group's death penalty adviser Chiara Sangiorgio.

“This case is another reminder that Singapore continues to defy international law and standards by imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking.”

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson added: “Singapore’s use of the death penalty is inherently cruel and inhumane, and the use of remote technology like Zoom to sentence a man to death makes it even more so.

“The absolute finality of the sentence, and the reality that wrongful convictions do occur around the world in death sentence cases, raise serious concerns about why Singapore is rushing to conclude this case via Zoom."

Singapore has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in Asia
Singapore has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in Asia. Picture: PA

Four people were executed in Singapore last year, compared to 13 in 2018.

The country has been under quarantine measures since early April, following a surge in the number of coronavirus cases linked to migrant worker dormitories.

Officials say businesses that do not pose a high risk of transmission can reopen from 2 June, but some retail shops, personal services and dine-in restaurants will still be barred.

Schools will reopen in phases and families can visit each other, but limited to one visit a day and no more than two guests in a household.

Earlier this month, the city-state allowed select businesses to open doors after infections dropped in the local community, away from the dorms.

The government said in a statement Tuesday that it expects infections to rise with the increased activity next month. If transmission remains low and stable, and the dorm situation under control, it said more activities will gradually resume including gyms, tuition centres and retail outlets in phase two.

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It said all restrictions will eventually be eased in phase three but with strict health guidelines in a "new normal" until an effective vaccine is developed.

Student Sindujah, 18, says the streets of Singapore are very quiet and the city is being very compliant.

People have just received their government-issued facemask in the post - which was first announced by the government at the start of February.

Everyone wears one, even on a short trip to the mailbox in their housing block, with shaming videos quickly going viral of people who don't.

She said: "It's been really long. I can even picture when the last time I actually went out was.

"So I think life has gotten very, very quiet and measures are stricter.

"The government also issued out masks to all the residents in Singapore - yeah we do actually have the trust in them.

"We actually look out for the health of each other and we make sure that we listen to the rules."

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