Pair on death row may escape gallows

SINGAPORE - Death-row inmate Yong Vui Kong has been given fresh hope in the latest twist to his long- running court bid to avoid the gallows.

The 25-year-old Malaysian - who was condemned to hang in 2008 - will be receiving a certificate from the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to say he had helped the authorities here disrupt drug-trafficking activities.

This could allow him to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison, as long as he can prove that he had played only the role of courier in the case.

The development follows changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act that were passed in Parliament last November and kicked in this year. The new laws give judges the discretion to impose life sentences and caning on couriers who "substantively assist" the authorities, namely the Central Narcotics Bureau, in the fight against drugs.

Yong's case became a cause celebre for human rights activists after he was condemned to hang for bringing a paper bag containing 47.27g of heroin into Singapore at the age of 19.

His legal team has since made a string of unsuccessful attempts to overturn his death sentence, including a constitutional challenge against capital punishment and a judicial review of the clemency process.

On Wednesday, the AGC said it will issue the certificate to Yong and another convicted drug trafficker, Subashkaran Pragasam, 29. Subashkaran was condemned to hang last October after being caught with nine packets containing 186.62g of heroin.

The 30-year-old was said to have taken a box filled with the drugs from his 10th-storey Housing Board flat in Tampines and to have left it in a lift for an accomplice to collect at the ground floor. His appeal was turned down in March.

Yong and Subashkaran are the first two persons awaiting capital punishment who will be issued with the certificates by the public prosecutor. Subashkaran's lawyer, Mr Tan Chuan Thye, said: "This is the first step. We still have to persuade the court."

Lawyer M. Ravi, who has been acting as Yong's defence counsel, said on Wednesday that he too will be applying to the court for re-sentencing. "This news comes as a tremendous relief to me," he said.

Couriers are defined under the new law as those who have played relatively minor roles like transporting or delivering drugs, and have done nothing else.

To date, only one accused, Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim, has received the AGC certificate. The 30-year-old admitted earlier in February this year to heroin trafficking, but was spared a date with the hangman when he was convicted and sentenced in April.

He was jailed for life and given 24 strokes of the cane after pleading guilty to two trafficking charges, one of which involved not less than 72.5g of heroin.

His accomplice, who faced the same charges, claimed trial but was convicted and sentenced to hang.

There are 26 drug offenders on death row who can apply for re-sentencing under the new regime, said an AGC spokesman. It will review every case where the person wishes to apply.

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