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Richard Branson fights to save low-IQ Nagaenthran Dharmalingam from hangman


His legal team had tried to have his sentence commuted on the basis of an intellectual disability and last month submitted a new medical report by Australian consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Danny Sullivan that concluded he had “borderline intellectual functioning which was likely to have been causally associated with his offending”. Sullivan is the executive director of clinical services at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health.

The appeal was dismissed, however, by a five-judge panel in the Court of Appeal and this week his family in Malaysia was informed he is to be executed next week.

His supporters say his condition has deteriorated further during his years in jail and he has little idea of what is ahead of him.

“He can’t really grasp any of this,” his Malaysian lawyer N Surendran said on Friday. “He just wants to know when he’s going home. He doesn’t seem to know that’s going to die.”

It was in November that Branson learnt of Nagaenthran’s approaching hanging, and decided to get involved. The case stood out to him “on so many levels”, he said, not simply because of the Malaysian man’s mental capacity and his broader opposition to capital punishment. “No one should face death for carrying 42 grams of heroin,” he said.

“When it comes to the death penalty in Singapore, it is clear to me that it’s no deterrent to crime, but it may well be a deterrent to those seeking to invest and trade in the future.”

Richard Branson

Branson launched a public appeal for Nagaenthran’s life and, privately, wrote to Singaporean President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pleading for clemency.

“The response I received from someone deep inside the Home Affairs Ministry was a laundry list of unconnected thoughts on drug use and crime in the West and a rejection of Nagen’s intellectual disability case. And reiterating the law governing the death penalty for drug offences, as the letter did, isn’t evidence that the approach is working,” Branson said.

Singapore credits its zero-tolerance policy for illicit drugs as key to retaining its status as one of the safest places in the world and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said last month that a new government study showed the majority of Singaporeans still supported the death penalty as a deterrent against serious crime.

Richard Branson has appealed directly to Singapore’s president and prime minister to spare Nagaenthran.

Richard Branson has appealed directly to Singapore’s president and prime minister to spare Nagaenthran.Credit:Attila Csaszar

Until last month, the city-state hadn’t actually carried out an execution since 2019. But on March 30, Abdul Kahar bin Othman, a 68-year-old Singaporean, was hanged at Changi, also on drug trafficking offences.

And while other Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have unofficial moratoriums on delivering the death penalty despite still handing out such sentences, Singapore now appears to be on an execution scheduling spree.

Since February execution dates have been set for five prisoners including Nagaenthran, the latest on Thursday when the family of another Malaysian drug trafficker – Datchinamurthy Kataiah – was informed by the Prison Service that he was to be hanged next Friday.

The Lee government has strongly defended Nagaenthran’s treatment, saying he had been afforded due process and the courts had determined he was “not intellectually disabled” and that he “knew what he was doing” when, as a 21-year-old, he strapped the drugs to his thigh and attempted to cross the border from Malaysia. Judges also rejected Nagaenthran’s account of being coerced to carry out the crime.

Activists supporting Nagaenthran protest outside the Singapore embassy in Kuala Lumpur last November.

Activists supporting Nagaenthran protest outside the Singapore embassy in Kuala Lumpur last November.Credit:AP

As for the amount of drugs he had on him, the ministry has stressed that 42.72 grams was enough for 3560 straws of heroin – “sufficient to feed the addiction of about 510 abusers for a week”.

As time runs out for Nagaenthran, Branson is joining a desperate final bid to have the sentence downgraded. Appearing alongside British actor Stephen Fry in a video released on Friday by anti-death-penalty group Reprieve, he again urged Singaporean authorities to show leniency.

In his interview with the Herald and The Age, he even appealed to the Malaysian government to lobby for a prisoner swap with Singapore to save Nagaenthran.

“Malaysia can negotiate Nagen’s transfer back to his home country, so that his family can give him the support he needs,” Branson said. “There are clear examples of prisoner transfers taking place with huge benefits to the prisoner and their family, especially when the prisoner is in a particularly vulnerable situation like Nagen is.

“I know Malaysian authorities, and the people of Malaysia, have stood behind Nagen and appealed for his life to be saved, and I hope they can bring him home.”

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Branson also warned of potential financial ramifications for Singapore if it does go ahead with the execution.

His own business links with the city-state aren’t as substantial as they once were a decade ago, when government-owned Singapore Airlines had a 49 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic.

However, having founded a campaign last year called Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty, he believes others could rethink their association with the financial hub.

“It’s not far-fetched to suggest that Singapore’s handling of the death penalty – the lack of transparency, the disregard for international norms and commitments, the harassment of lawyers and human rights defenders – is far from what you expect from a nation professing its commitment to the rule of law,” Branson said. “And some in business may be prompted to wonder what this could imply for the protection of their interests, investments, and relationships should they ever encounter the justice system and depend on fairness and due process.

“At the end of the day, all of us in business depend on functioning institutions and good governance. When it comes to the death penalty in Singapore, it is clear to me that it’s no deterrent to crime, but it may well be a deterrent to those seeking to invest and trade in the future.”

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