On a Monday afternoon in September 2015, two men arrived at an industrial estate in Singapore for a clandestine meeting, with one dropping a red plastic bag into the other’s vehicle. When police, watching the drug deal take place, moved to arrest the men later that night, they found close to 2kg of cannabis in the package.
During his trial, the recipient of the bag, Raj Kumar Aiyachami, maintained his innocence. Raj claimed that he had ordered a kind of chemically-sprayed tobacco called “butterfly,” known to only mimic the effects of cannabis, but instead ended up with a bag of weed.
The trial judge did not buy his testimony, and Raj was handed the death sentence in 2020. The other man at the exchange, Ramadass Punnusamy, was arrested at the border on his way back to Malaysia the same night, and later sentenced to life imprisonment along with 15 strokes of the cane.
But on Friday, in an extraordinary turn of events seven years after the pair were first arrested, both men were acquitted by Singapore’s Court of Appeal. The savior for Raj, who was until last week sitting on death row, came in the form of a tiny tattoo found on the finger of an inmate he had befriended in prison—a tattoo marking the death date of a beloved deceased pet hamster.
In what the court called a “remarkable coincidence,” Raj’s testimony about receiving the wrong package was corroborated by fellow inmate Mark Kalaivanan Tamilarasan. Prior to Raj receiving the death penalty, the two shared one hour of prison yard time each day for a month in 2017, before becoming cellmates in 2018. During one conversation in the yard, in which Raj told Mark about his arrest, Mark said that he was in the same location on the same day to collect “ganja,” but got a bag of “butterfly” by accident.
The court heard that the reason Mark remembered Sept. 21—the date of the alleged mixup—so vividly was because his pet hamster Patrick had died that evening. He said that he was “quite close” to his pet and had tattooed the words “RIP 21.9.15 PAT” on his left middle finger a few days after the rodent’s death.
In 2020, the prosecution argued that the two men’s meeting in prison, along with Mark’s tattoo, was too incredible to be true. The court agreed with the prosecution that the two inmates had “more than ample opportunity to collude and manufacture the story that Mark spun in court.”
But this ruling was overturned on Friday, when Singapore’s chief justice Sundaresh Menon said that Mark’s evidence should not have been rejected, saying there is “an immense difference between having the opportunity to do something and actually doing that thing.”
“Mark was effectively implicating himself in a very serious offense, which at the time he gave evidence, he had not been investigated for or charged with,” he said. “He had much to lose and seemingly nothing to gain in doing this, if it was all false.”
“It was already quite a fluke for Raj and Mark to have met, spoken, and realized that they were both at the same place on the same day.”
Ramesh Tiwary, Raj’s lawyer, told VICE World News that Mark’s testimony “was a lucky break.”
“It would have been more difficult [to get Raj’s death sentence overturned] without that evidence,” he said, adding that the case highlights the importance of affording defendants a fair legal process when it comes to punishments as grave and irreversible as the death penalty.
“Sometimes even applying all the correct legal principles, two people looking at the same facts may arrive at different conclusions.”
Kirsten Han, a member of the Transformative Justice Collective, an organization spearheading the movement to abolish the death penalty in Singapore, called the ruling a “great relief.”
“It was already quite a fluke for Raj and Mark to have met, spoken, and realized that they were both at the same place on the same day,” Han told VICE World News. “It’s really scary thinking about how things could have gone very differently if Raj hadn’t had Mark’s testimony.”
Singapore has some of the toughest drug laws in the world, with those caught trafficking over 500 grams of cannabis subject to the death penalty. But the city-state’s approach to capital punishment has come under increasing scrutiny over the past 12 months amid a growing anti-death penalty movement. The controversial executions of two inmates this year—both convicted separately of trafficking small amounts of heroin, with one of them deemed to have “borderline intellectual functioning”—has sparked domestic and international outcry.
Han says that the ruling doesn’t indicate that the country is budging from its unbending approach to the death penalty. But at the same time, the case has raised questions about the legitimacy of such heavy-handed punishments for drug offenses.
“I don’t think this is a sign the authorities are loosening up in handing out death sentences; the circumstances of this case were quite extraordinary,” said Han. “But it does go to show that our drug laws are not fixed facts of life. They’re manmade.”
“With the death penalty, then, you end up with such situations where whether one lives or dies comes down to such decisions.”
Mark’s fate remains uncertain after his testimony, in which he told the court that he was supposed to collect the cannabis on behalf of another acquaintance in exchange for 100 grams of free weed. It’s also unclear what the penalties are surrounding the trade of “butterfly,” or whether Ramadass and Raj will face fresh charges for trafficking illicit tobacco products.
Ramesh noted that Singapore doesn’t have a system of compensation for those wrongly convicted and later acquitted. He added that despite the welcome reprieve, years of living on death row have taken a toll on Raj, who Ramesh says has become a quieter person during his time in prison.
“It is very difficult being on death row as dying is always ever-present,” he said. “He believed he was innocent.”