Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has condemned Singapore's decision to sentence yet another citizen to death over an inconsequential amount of weed.
This Wednesday, the Singapore Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) is planning to execute 46-year-old Tangaraju Suppiah for allegedly smuggling cannabis into the city-state. Tangaraju was convicted of “abetting by engaging in a conspiracy to traffic” 1.18 kg (2.6 pounds) of weed in 2017. Singapore sentenced the man to the standard punishment for smuggling more than 500 grams of weed - death by hanging. Tangaraju appealed his case, arguing that he was innocent, but his appeal was rejected.
Branson is now trying to use his influence in a last-ditch attempt to find justice for Tangaraju. In a recent blog post, the billionaire tycoon called on the CNB to review the case again. Human rights activists have claimed that the conviction relied solely on statements taken during a police interrogation. Tangaraju was not actually caught in possession of the weed that he allegedly smuggled, and he reportedly did not have access to a lawyer or even an interpreter during his interrogation.
“Tangaraju was actually not anywhere near these drugs at the time of his arrest,” Branson wrote. “This was largely a circumstantial case that relied on inferences. Investigators and prosecutors acted on the fact that his mobile numbers were stored on the actual drug traffickers’ phone, interpreting phone records and text messages as ‘proof’ of his involvement. Tangaraju’s alleged co-conspirator – who was actually caught in possession of the drugs – pleaded guilty to a non-capital offense.”
But even if Tangaraju were fully guilty of trafficking two pounds of weed, the punishment still wouldn't fit the crime. Like many other Southeast Asian nations, Singapore continues to impose capital punishment for non-violent drug smuggling offenses. The city-state temporarily suspended executions during the pandemic, but renewed this brutal practice in March 2022. Singapore has executed eleven people since then, and Tangaraju may well be the twelfth.
“Singapore is an otherwise wonderful country, so it’s very sad to see some of its policies harking back to colonialism, and even reminiscent of medieval times,” Branson wrote. “The death penalty is already a dark stain on the country’s reputation. An execution following such an unsafe conviction would only make things worse.”
Branson, who is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has joined human rights organizations like Amnesty International in calling for Singapore and other countries to stop sentencing people to death for minor crimes. Singapore has repeatedly claimed that its draconian policies effectively deter drug-related crime, but as Branson points out, officials have yet to prove that these extreme tactics actually work.
“Killing those at the lowest rungs of the illicit drug supply chain, often minorities living in poverty, is hardly effective in curbing an international trade worth hundreds of billions every year,” he argued. “Killing people for allegedly smuggling cannabis is particularly cruel and misguided, given that more countries are now introducing sensible drug policy by decriminalizing and regulating both medicinal and recreational cannabis, using revenues to advance education, prevention, and harm reduction.”
And although Singapore doesn't yet seem willing to change its ways, many of its neighbors are. Malaysia, another country that has executed people for smuggling cannabis and other drugs, finally abolished mandatory death penalties and lifelong imprisonment last year. The country even voted to legalize limited medical marijuana use, and Thailand has even gone so far as to decriminalize cannabis entirely.