The case of a man sentenced to death for smuggling two pounds of cannabis into the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore has focused global attention on the disturbing reality that there are still countries on Earth where you can get sent to the gallows for a substance that legal fortunes are now being made from. The news from Singapore, alas, is not the first such case in recent years. And despite an international outcry each time, nothing seems to change in these intransigent regimes.
The case of Omar Yacob Bamadhaj percolated into the international news on Oct. 12, when the Apex Court of Singapore turned down his appeal — which means that the 41-year-old man faces death by hanging. The sentence was handed down this February, after he was convicted of bringing 1 kilogram (about two pounds) of cannabis into the city-state in 2018. As Channel News Asia reports, Omar and his father crossed from Singapore into Malaysia on July 11, 2018 to buy groceries and attend evening prayers at a mosque. While at a car wash, he met two acquaintances, who offered to pay him to bring three bundles wrapped in newspapers into Singapore. In a statement to the police after his arrest, he reportedly said the deal was for S$500 per bundle (about US$370). He said he knew the “green” was marijuana and wrestled with it for 20 minutes before accepting the deal—because he was “desperate for money.” At trial, he pleaded innocent, and said he didn’t know what was inside the packages. But this contradicted his initial reported statement to the police, and he was convicted.
Amnesty International’s death penalty adviser, Chiara Sangiorgio, told the media after the Apex Court decision, “By dismissing Omar Yacob Bamadhaj’s appeal, the Singapore authorities have violated international safeguards and sentenced yet another person convicted of drug trafficking to death by hanging.”
Others have taken note as well.
Reggae superstar Ziggy Marley took to social media to blast the Apex Court decision. As DanceHallMag notes, Marley wrote on Instagram, “So the government of #singapore is going to kill a human being for two pounds of cannabis. Is that just or moral?”
There is, unfortunately, as sense of déjà vu to all this. There was a similar global outcry in Oct. 2018 over a man sentenced to death in Malaysia for providing medical cannabis oil to epileptics and cancer patients. Malaysia’s government actually responded to the international protests by pledging to abolish the death penalty.
But the brief media spotlight moved on, and three years later—nothing has happened. It was only this Feb. that the hash oil producer, Muhammad Lukman, formally escaped the gallows after the Federal Court allowed his appeal of the death sentence, Free Malaysia Today reported. However, the court confirmed his guilt under Malaysia’s harsh Dangerous Drugs Act, and sentenced him to five years on each of two counts of possession. The terms are to run concurrently, meaning he will serve five years.
And the death penalty is still on the books—including for drug offenses. This month, a 55-year-old single mother of nine was given a death sentence on a methamphetamine charge. Free Malaysia Today reports that Hairun Jalmani, a fishmonger in the rainforest province of Sabah, was convicted of possessing 113.9 grams—or four ounces—of methamphetamine in 2018.
And the political opposition is still pressuring the government to, at least, lift the legal pressure on medicinal cannabis. In Sept., lawmaker Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), stated on the floor of parliament, amid budgetary debates, that the country may get left behind in the global cannabis boom if it doesn’t lighten up.
“I hope the government can table a working paper that is transparent, sincere, which is driven by data and science concerning the pros and cons of sanctioning the hemp and medical marijuana industry,” Saddiq stated, according to the Malay Mail. “I say this because there are more than 40 countries today where approval for hemp or medical marijuana has been given… We do not want Malaysia to lag behind anymore.” Flight From Burma
Southeast Asia has some of the worst laws in this regard, and a case from another country in the region also won brief attention from the international press two years ago—partially because an American was involved. In April 2019, US citizen John Fredric Todoroki was among a trio arrested in Burma for running a 20-acre cannabis plantation in a Mandalay industrial park—and potentially faced the death penalty. In March 2020, Todoroki, 63, fled the country while out on bail and is now back in the United States, Burmese news site The Irrawaddy reported. Todoroki spent nearly four months in Myingyan prison until he was granted medical bail, set at 325 million kyats (about US$230,000), in light of respiratory problems he’d developed behind bars. When he jumped bail, a court had just turned down his appeal of the charge, rejecting his claim that he had a permit for the plantation from local authorities.
Things did not work out so well for Todoroki’s Burmese partner and co-defendant. The same month that Todoroki fled the country, U Shein Latt was sentenced to 20 years in prison, The Associated Press reported. Charges were dropped against the third person arrested in the raid, Shunlei Myat Noe, a young Burmese woman who served as a hired worker at the plantation. A photo in Myanmar Now showed her being led by police to a court hearing in Jan. 2020, seemingly in tears.Political Games in China
China—the world’s biggest executioner, by far—has ambitions to get in on the cannabis boom, providing hemp for the global CBD market. But cannabis is more harshly proscribed in China than just about any other country in the world, and the People’s Republic continues to execute thousands every year for drug crimes. And some recent cases concerning foreigners have become clearly politicized.
Recently in the news was the very blatant case of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian who was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for methamphetamine trafficking by a court in the northeast city of Dalian, Liaoning province, in December 2018. But the following month he was ordered to stand retrial as prosecutors said that his sentencing had been too light. In a one-day retrial, he was given a death sentence. Schellenberg’s retrial was widely seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese technology company Huawei. Meng had been arrested in Vancouver that same December at the request of US authorities, who accused her of helping the company evade sanctions against Iran. Shortly after Meng’s arrest, China had also detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian business owner Michael Spavor on spurious and secretive grounds of “endangering state security.”
More such cases followed. In April 2019, Canadian citizen Fan Wei was sentenced to death for meth trafficking by the Jiangmen Intermediate People’s Court in Guangdong province. In August 2020, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Canadian citizen Xu Weihong to death for methamphetamine trafficking. That same month, the Foshan Intermediate People’s Court, also in Guangdong province, sentenced Canadian citizen Ye Jianhui to death on charges of bringing 217 kilograms of MDMA into the country. China dismissed Canadian appeals for clemency in these cases, with the Foreign Affairs Ministry saying in a statement: “Drug-related crimes are considered serious crimes worldwide. Chinese law retains the death sentence and controls its application strictly.”
In August 2021, the Liaoning Higher People’s Court upheld Schellenberg’s death sentence.
The very next month, the US Justice Department reached an agreement clearing the way for Meng Wanzhou to return to China after admitting some wrongdoing in the sanctions violation case. (Meng had spent the past nearly three years out on bail of about $8 million at her two luxurious homes in Vancouver.)
Within hours of the deal’s announcement, China reciprocated, releasing Kovrig and Spavor.
But there has been no clemency for Robert Schellenberg, Xu Weihong, Ye Jianhui and Fan Wei, who still face the firing squad (that’s how it’s done in China). Whether they will receive a reprieve has been a subject of much speculation in the Canadian media. And they are among 115 Canadians detained in China, mostly on drug charges.Amnesty International’s most recent report on global executions found that they actually declined in 2020, continuing a trend in recent years. But China was not even included in the groups’ worldwide tally of some 475 executions carried out last year, because the People’s Republic makes no statistics available. As the Al-Jazeera report on Amnesty’s findings notes, China is believed to carry out thousands of executions every year—many for drug offenses. And while meth, sadly, seems to be more widely available in China than cannabis, we may assume that some of those thousands of annual executions are for the herb.
Nearly all of the executions that Amnesty recorded last year were in the Middle East, and this region vies with East and Southeast Asia for the world’s harshest drug laws.
Currently making news in England is the case of a British man sentenced to 25 years for bringing CBD oil into the United Arab Emirates. As BBC News reports, 24-year-old West London football coach Billy Hood was arrested this February in Dubai after four bottles of vape liquid containing CBD oil were found in his car. He claims he was forced to sign a false confession to trafficking the cannabinoid, which is legal to vape in the UK. The “confession” he signed was in Arabic, a language he cannot read.
UAE’s The National reports that the General Directorate for Drug Control (GDDC) received a tipoff that Hood possessed quantities of synthetic cannabis oil with the intention of selling. He is currently appealing his conviction.
No global survey of the death penalty should overlook the United States, which carried out 17 executions last year. And while none of these were for drug offenses, the country once known as the “leader of the free world” actually does have a death penalty for cannabis on the books—in sufficient quantities. Large-scale cannabis cultivators and traffickers—meaning at least 60,000 plants or kilos—may indeed be sentenced to death under the “Kingpin” provision of the Federal Death Penalty Act, which was an amendment to the 1994 Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act.
After then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo in March 2018 urging prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs,” even mainstream media outlets began raising the alarm that this could actually be used against large-scale state-legal cannabis cultivators in places like California.
President Joe Biden calls his strategy for restoring US global leadership after the Trump era “The Power of America’s Example,” and it has much to say both about respecting human rights and challenging China’s appalling violations. But the United States clearly has work to do getting its own house in order before it can challenge others on rights abuses related to the war on drugs.