SINGAPORE - After a four-year fight and a string of unsuccessful bids to challenge his death sentence for drug trafficking, Yong Vui Kong was finally spared the gallows.
The High Court on Thursday re-sentenced the Malaysian, who was 19 when he was arrested six years ago, to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane.
This followed changes to the law this year which give judges the discretion to impose life terms and caning, instead of the previously mandatory death penalty, for drug couriers who help the authorities in a substantive way.
Yong was certified to have substantively assisted in disrupting drug-trafficking activities. Now, 25, he is the first convicted drug offender awaiting capital punishment to be spared the noose under the new law.
On Thursday, Justice Choo Han Teck said he was satisfied that the requirements of the amended law applied to Yong and that he only acted as a courier.
The thinly-built man, who has been in prison since his arrest in 2007, was solemn yesterday as he received his new sentence in a packed courtoom.
Yong's life sentence was backdated to the day he was charged in June 2007. A life sentence in Singapore lasts for a person's natural life, but he is eligible for a review of his sentence after he serves 20 years in jail.
His case had attracted the attention of human rights activists and was widely reported by the media here and in Malaysia. His family and supporters, including a Member of Parliament from his home state of Sabah, had also presented a petition for clemency to the President bearing more than 100,000 signatures.
It took a dramatic twist in 2009 when lawyer M. Ravi - four days before Yong was due to be hanged - filed an eleventh-hour motion to revive the appeal that Yong had dropped.
Mr Ravi's subsequent attempts in court to overturn the death sentence eventually failed, but as a result of the numerous challenges, Yong lived to see changes in the law that spared him a date with the hangman.
Outside court on Thursday, Yong's older brothers, Mr Yun Leong, 28, and Mr Yun Chung, 27, who work here as chefs, were surrounded by reporters. Mr Yun Leong described yesterday's outcome as a "miracle", adding that he could finally heave a sigh of relief.
"If we had not fought the case, he would have been hanged four years ago," he said in Mandarin. He said Yong, the sixth of seven siblings, was learning English in prison and hoped to counsel youth about the dangers of drugs while serving time in jail.
Mr Yun Leong said that their mother in Sabah only knew that Yong was in prison and did not know he had been sentenced to hang. So he would not be telling her about the latest development.
Yong was 19 years old when he entered Singapore in a vehicle driven by a friend. They were arrested by anti-narcotics officers who tailed them as Yong delivered drugs to two customers. Two bundles found in the car were analysed to contain 47.27g of heroin. Yong told investigators his friend was not involved with the drugs.
He was eventually convicted in November 2008 and given the death penalty. He filed an appeal but later withdrew it, saying that he had become a Buddhist and did not want to lie. But he changed his mind and restored his appeal on the grounds that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. The appeal was dismissed.
He then applied for judicial review of clemency proceedings in July 2010, with Mr Ravi arguing that it is the President, not the Cabinet, who has the power to decide whether or not to grant clemency to someone on death row. The High Court, and later, the Court of Appeal, disagreed.
In July 2011, the Government began a review of the death penalty laws and Yong was among the 35 death-row inmates whose hangings were put on hold.
In March last year, Yong made a third attempt before the Court of Appeal to quash his death sentence, arguing that his constitutional right to equal protection by the law had been violated.
This was because Singaporean Chia Choon Leng, who allegedly asked Yong to deliver the drugs, had the charges against him withdrawn. Chia is now being held under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows the detention of suspects without trial. The Court of Appeal dismissed Yong's case.
On Thusrday, his two brothers, their former MP Chua Soon Bui from Sabah, Mr Ravi, and others gathered at a restaurant in Circular Road. Madam Chua said she was buying them a "celebration" dinner.
She also bought an English dictionary for Yong, to help him with his learning of the language while in prison.
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