Reduced sentences for couriers should be considered
ALTHOUGH the attorney-general's statement that he was considering giving judges discretionary powers in deciding whether to award the death penalty to drug mules convicted of trafficking appears to be a bolt out of the blue, this is actually only another step in the process that the country has gradually been taking towards lessening its use of the death penalty. In its 2009 Universal Periodic Review report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Malaysia had declared that it was proposing to amend "existing anti-drug trafficking legislation to reduce the maximum sentence to life imprisonment" from the currently practised mandatory death. Last year, a parliamentary roundtable agreed to a resolution calling for an immediate moratorium on the mandatory death penalty, and in particular, its use on drug offenders. The A-G's proposed review will also afford those currently on death row the avenue to go back to the courts for re-sentencing.
The proposed amendment hopes to address drug mules -- the smallest fish in the long chain of the drug trade -- who are too stupid not to get caught and too poor to afford competent defence lawyers. Drug lords and kingpins -- who bear the greatest responsibility for the drug trade and reap the most profit -- hardly ever get caught or are charged with possession, let alone convicted. Yet, the current mandatory death penalty gives no leeway for the justice system to differentiate between a mule and a lord. Indirectly, too, adjusting the penalty may address an imbalance in justice that is currently being practised. Section 37 of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, regarding legal presumptions, pushes the burden of proof on the accused. Anyone found to have dangerous drugs in his custody is presumed to be in possession. And, anyone found in possession of dangerous drugs above a specified limit is presumed to be trafficking. The accused has to disprove these presumptions. As a result, of the over 900 people on death row today, about 640 are drug cases.
Low-level drug offenders should not be let off scot-free, of course, but neither should they be given a penalty that exceeds the severity of the crime. Couriering drugs can hardly be said to be an offence worthy of the ultimate sanction. And there is as yet no scientific proof that the gallows have a deterrent effect on serious crime. So, this move is not an attempt to diminish the serious effect that drugs have on the lives of addicts and on society. Rather, it is a progressive attempt to ensure that justice is done; that the penalty does not outweigh the crime.