Today marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
With the help of members of TJC, the family of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who is on death row, have submitted a plea for clemency to Singapore’s President, Mdm Halimah Yacob. The letter was also copied to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, since the President is only able to grant clemency to an inmate on death row if so advised by the Cabinet. Although the Cabinet under PM Lee’s leadership has never advised any President to commute a death sentence, we believe that Nagen has a strong case to be shown mercy, and be spared from being executed.
The clemency petition from Nagen’s mother, Panchalai — drafted with support from an international legal team who have been assisting Nagen and his family — highlights his disabilities and the lack of procedural accommodations that should have been given to Nagen during the criminal justice process to address these disabilities. The petition also articulates the family’s concerns that Nagen’s mental condition is now so poor that he is unable to comprehend that he will be hanged.
In her letter, Panchalai tells Mdm Halimah and PM Lee that Nagen had always been a caring child with a strong sense of responsibility towards his family. Even as a teenager, he worked part-time jobs to help his mother — who was the main breadwinner of the family — make ends meet. She had not wanted her son to come to Singapore, as it would take him far away from her. However, Nagen had insisted because he wanted to find work and lessen her financial burdens.
According to Nagen’s family, he struggled in school, needed help with his assignments and dozed off regularly in class. He had also always been easily influenced or led by others, quick to place blind trust in people as long as they were nice to him. During his childhood, his family had neither the knowledge nor the resources to get him assessed by experts, or realise that these behaviours were due to his borderline intellectual functioning and psychosocial disabilities.
“We were not able to protect him from being convicted of a crime, but we have never stopped loving and supporting Nagen,” Panchalai wrote in her clemency plea.
The letter also highlights that Nagen’s disabilities meant that he needed additional support and help to navigate the investigative and legal processes from the moment of his arrest. However, he did not receive sufficient accommodations to ensure that he could access justice on the same basis as others. The Singapore Police Force began training officers to identify people with mental disabilities in 2013, and the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Persons with Mental Disabilities was only introduced in 2015 — years after Nagen’s arrest, prosecution, and initial conviction, which occurred between 2009 to 2011. Nagen might have been given due legal process, but our collective understanding of what constitutes fair process for persons with disabilities has developed since his encounters with the police and the courts, as shown by Singapore’s signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012. We are not able to turn back time to redo Nagen’s investigation and trial, but the Cabinet and the President can commute the death sentence that he received at the end of a process in which he had not been supported in ways that he needed.
As regards the family’s worries about Nagen’s current mental state, family members who visited him in November recounted that he was often disoriented and incoherent, and had difficulty maintaining eye contact with people. “Nagen talks about going home and eating my home-cooked food. It breaks my heart to hear him say that when I know he is facing death by hanging,” Panchalai writes. “I am very concerned that Nagen does not seem to understand that ‘execution’ means that he will die.”
TJC stands in solidarity and support with Nagen’s family’s appeal to the President and Cabinet of Singapore to commute Nagen’s punishment from the death sentence to that of life imprisonment.
Read the family’s clemency appeal here: