‘I’d Rather My Brother Die of a Heart Attack’: A Family’s Last Days With a Death Row Inmate

Come Friday, Nazeri bin Lajim will be hanged by the Singaporean government. VICE World News met with his family as they navigated his final days.
Singapore death row inmate and drug trafficking convict Nazeri bin Lajim will be executed on July 22, 2022
Nazeri bin Lajim (L) is set to face the gallows in Singapore on Friday, after being sentenced to death for drug trafficking in 2017. His sister Nazira Lajim Hertslet (R) and their family were given just one week’s notice. Images: Courtesy of Nazira Lajim Hertslet and VICE World New

Through a glass panel in a small visiting room, an inmate makes small talk with his family, waxing lyrical over how his niece and nephew have grown since the last time he saw them. He reminisces about childhood moments with his siblings, memories he recounts in surprisingly vivid detail. 

Shifting to a more serious note, he asks his sister to help take care of his only son after he’s gone. The hour-long visit on Tuesday morning is likely one of the last times Nazeri bin Lajim’s family will see him alive. Assuming no last-minute miracles occur, the 64-year-old man will be hanged by the Singaporean government on Friday.

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Their ordeal, preparing for an execution over the course of a week, is one largely hidden from the public eye. A rising anti-death penalty movement is confronting Singapore at home and abroad, and beneath the debate about the effectiveness and humanity of the death penalty lies heartbroken families, counting down the days until their loved ones are sent to the gallows. 

This week, Nazeri’s family is dealing with that immense stress and grief, as they traverse the morbid reality of a death row inmate’s last days. As part of a ritual practiced in Singapore, family members are asked to send up to four sets of clothes to prison for a final photoshoot before their loved ones are hanged. One of these sets, chosen by the inmate, will also be worn on execution day.

As Nazeri heads to the gallows this week, he requested for a set of traditional Malay attire and another modern outfit consisting of a shirt and pants, his sister Nazira Lajim Hertslet told VICE World News. 

“That picture is only for our memory to keep, for the family,” she said at her home on Tuesday morning, before one of her last visits to the prison to see her brother.

Some have labeled the practice bizarre and morbid; others believe seeing their family member one last time in their favorite clothing offers solace. Kalwant Singh’s photoshoot from earlier this month offers Nazeri’s family an insight into what to expect. Days before his execution for drug trafficking on July 7, Singh smiled broadly as he wore a baseball T-shirt and track pants, posing for the camera with one foot perched on a bar stool. 

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Nazeri was sentenced to death in 2017 for trafficking 33.39 grams of heroin in 2012, and after a decade of uncertainty over his fate, his family finally received notice of his execution on July 15. It left them with just one week to say their final goodbyes, with his Malaysia-based siblings scrambling back to Singapore to see him one last time. For Nazira, who has been visiting her favorite brother regularly, her world fell apart. 

“This is the lowest, saddest moment in my life,” she said. “My legs are weak. I’ve been crying the whole night. I’ve been praying and praying.”

In her desperation, Nazira said she even prayed that her brother would die of natural causes during his walk to the gallows from his cell, where he has spent years in solitary confinement.

“I’d rather my brother die of a heart attack than hanging. I just can’t accept that my brother has to be hanged,” she said. “Suddenly, his life will be taken just like that.”

“The prison is not a prison anymore to me. It’s more like a slaughterhouse.”

While Nazeri’s family struggles to come to terms with his imminent hanging, they are forced to make practical plans. His sister Nazira has already started making funeral arrangements, liaising with the prison on things like transporting his body and details on his burial.

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“We were given a short notice. That surprised us,” said Nazira. “The prison is not a prison anymore to me. It’s more like a slaughterhouse.”

In March, Singapore resumed executions after a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. The city-state is now barrelling ahead with capital punishment, with local activists saying prison authorities have since sent out execution notices to at least seven people. Four of those men have been executed already—two this month alone. 

Singapore’s ruthless approach to the death penalty has been the subject of increased international scrutiny since October, when it announced the hanging of drug trafficking convict Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man assessed to have borderline intellectual functioning. But Singapore has long been one of the world’s firmest proponents of capital punishment; in 1999, the city-state was estimated by the UN to have had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world. 

While the frequency of executions has slowed since then, the underlying issue remains the same, with the majority of executions related to drug trafficking offenses. In many of these cases, the traffickers themselves are the victim of drugs. 

Nazira said her brother had struggled with addiction since the age of 14, around the time their father lost his job as an army administrator. When their father passed away a few years later, the nine siblings struggled further with poverty, with Nazira saying they “grew up like wild plants.” While Nazira and her mother worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, her brother battled drug addiction with little support. 

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Singapore introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1973, which saw it begin meting out much harsher punishments for drug offenses—including the death penalty. Its use is justified by the government as the most effective way of keeping Singaporeans safe from the clutches of drug use. But what Nazira sees in the country’s harsh drug policy is how it failed her brother, who desperately needed rehabilitation and support.

“To me, my brother is sick. He’s not a violent person,” she said. “How can you hang a sick person?”

For now, Nazira and the rest of the family are taking every chance to see Nazeri, visiting him on rotation every day. Also making their way to the prison twice a day are his son Haikal and ex-wife Sheila. Over the years, Nazeri’s frequent prison stints caused their marriage to crumble, but according to Sheila, the love they share is the reason why she has continued to care for him.

Letters written by Singapore death row inmate and drug trafficking convict Nazeri bin Lajim

An affidavit (L) and a letter questioning the death penalty for drug trafficking (R) written recently by Nazeri. Photos: Courtesy of Nazira Lajim Hertslet 

Family members say Nazeri is healthy and appears to be in good spirits. But he has also been desperately trying to delay his execution with handwritten letters about his case and the death penalty. As the execution date looms near, they continue to pray for a miracle. 

“We try to be very strong, we try to keep ourselves together,” said Nazira. “We prepared everything for the worst, though I never give up on praying for miracles. Only God knows when he has to go.”

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