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One more life lost: The execution of Kho Jabing

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
One more life lost: The execution of Kho Jabing
Despite best efforts from activists and lawyers, Sarawakian Kho Jabing was executed at 3:30pm on Friday, 20 May. I reflect on the mad week of desperate efforts to save his life, and how it came to a painful, disappointing end.

Note: I am a co-founder and active member of We Believe in Second Chances, a group campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore.

It's taken a week for things to properly sink in, for me to be able to sit down and actually think about the whirlwind that was the week leading up to 20 May, and how it all ended so suddenly and so painfully.

It all started on 12 May, when Jumai texted anti-death penalty activists in Singapore (including myself) to say that she had received a letter from the Singapore Prison Service informing her that her brother Kho Jabing's execution had been scheduled for 20 May. 

The news took us all by surprise. We'd been under the impression that Jabing's lawyer, then Chandra Mohan, had been allowed time to prepare a fresh clemency petition for the Cabinet and President of Singapore to consider, a process which would usually take three months. This clemency petition had, at that point in time, not even been submitted yet. How could the execution have been set?

(We later found out that the President and the government had considered Jabing's previous clemency petition – which had been rejected in October 2015 – to be the final one. "The clemency process is concluded," the Ministry of Home Affairs told the press.)

The clock began to count down; it was hard to forget that each tick brought Jabing closer and closer to the noose. There was little he could do in prison, confined to his cell most hours of the day. But, as his sister said at a press conference, "The people outside can do a lot."

And so we began to try anything and everything we could think of to save Jabing: issuing statements, speaking to the press, sending signatures from an online petition to the president, organising a press conferences. We weren't alone; other civil society groups in Singapore came out to support Jabing's cause, along with human rights defenders in his home country of Malaysia and around the world. 

There were so many issues with his case to highlight, and so little time. Originally sentenced to death under the mandatory death penalty, Jabing had not received a retrial after amendments in the law allowed judges to choose between the death sentence and life imprisonment with caning. Many important details – such as the exact number of blows he inflicted on the victim, his mental capacity, his level of intoxication, etc. – were never established. 

Following amendments to the law, one High Court judge and two Judges of Appeal had also expressed their opinion that the death penalty was not an appropriate punishment for Jabing. As far as we activists were concerned, this was a clear sign that doubt remained in his case, and that it was not safe to execute him.

Furthermore, the same judge, Andrew Phang, had sat on both his appeal hearings, before and after the amendments in the law. (Phang would go on to sit on all Jabing's appeal hearings, right up to the very last one hours before his execution).

Lawyers, too, sprang into action. On Thursday, Gino Hardial Singh appeared in the Court of Appeal to make a case of apparent bias relating to Phang's presence on multiple appeals. The motion was dismissed; the Court of Appeal did not find an issue with Phang having sat on both appeals.

Later that night, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss argued on points of constitutional law before a judicial commissioner, asking for a stay of execution for Jabing until her case could be heard. The judicial commissioner decided not to issue a stay, but Jabing was entitled to an appeal; a temporary stay of execution was thus allowed as long as Chong-Aruldoss could file a notice of appeal by 11pm – a mere seven hours before his scheduled time of execution.

Jumai, a fellow volunteer Nadzirah and I sat in the law office that night, trying to be as useful as possible while also keeping out of the way of scrambling lawyers, trainees and interns making sure that the notice of appeal would be filed on time. We returned from a food run just past 11pm to see everyone finally relaxed enough to have some food... only to hear shortly after that the appeal hearing had been scheduled for 9am the next morning. It was a staggeringly short amount of time for the team to get everything prepared, but they had no choice.

Friday morning came 'round. 6am. Jabing was not hanged. Instead, we gathered at the Court of Appeal once more at 9am to hear Alfred Dodwell, now acting as lead counsel with Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss assisting, argue Jabing's case. Requests for an adjournment were declined; Dodwell was required to argue then and there. What followed was an excruciating two hours as the judges took him to task, disagreeing with his arguments. It was clear to all – perhaps even to Jabing, who was sitting in the dock – that the judges would not rule in his favour.

The court stood down at 11am so the judges could discuss and prepare their ruling. I had to leave for the airport to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and took the opportunity to say goodbye. It was past 6am; Jabing would likely have at least another week to live.

"I'll see you on Monday," I said to Jumai, giving her a hug. Tears came to her eyes, but she nodded.

I got the news just before I boarded the plane: "The appeal is dismissed."

The flight from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City is about two hours long; it's a common and largely uneventful route plied regularly. Yet that was all it took for things to take a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.

"They're executing him today," was the first message I received upon landing. "The family are at the prison saying goodbye now."

Jabing was dead before I even got to my hotel. It had been about four-and-a-half hours since I'd last seen him, alive and well, sitting in the dock and speaking with his lawyers.

Jabing was a criminal; he had murdered someone. He had, of course, to be punished. Yet what had happened in that last week leading up to his sudden death demonstrated the cold cruelty of the death penalty, a process so premeditated and administrative that his lawyers would later be chewed out by the Attorney-General's Chambers for "abusing court processes" simply for trying all they could to save his life. The determination to execute him that very day meant that he had only a short time to speak with his family in court, and their last goodbyes in prison were in the form of a televisit before he was made to walk into a room and not come out again. 

The death penalty is an emotive issue; all one needs to do is take a look at the response I received for the obituary I wrote for Jabing. Yet the implementation and administration of the death penalty is simply bureaucracy, a cold trudge towards an end that neither improves anyone's lives, nor deters future crime.

#singapore, #death penalty, #capital punishment, #crime, #human rights, #justice