Drug Smugglers Are Being Sentenced to Death via Zoom

At least 21 drug offenders have been handed the death penalty via video calls on WhatsApp or Zoom during the pandemic.
Max Daly
London, GB
April 7, 2021, 5:00am
Drug Smugglers Are Being Sentenced to Death via Zoom
Zoom being used during a trial in a court in Jakarta, Indonesia in July 2020.  Photo: Ricky Prakoso/AFP via Getty 

Courts in Indonesia and Singapore are using video calls to sentence to death people convicted of drug trafficking, according to drug harm reduction experts.

Harm Reduction International (HRI), which published its annual report into global drug war death penalties on Wednesday, told VICE World News that 19 drug offenders were sentenced to death in Indonesia during virtual hearings held on video apps such as Zoom and WhatsApp between March 2020 and March this year. Two people convicted of drug trafficking were handed death sentences over Zoom calls in Singapore last year. 

The report said use of video calls for trial hearings and to administer death sentences introduced due to COVID-19 constituted a “significant violation of their fair trial rights”. 

Lawyers for defendants said the video conference calls, which featured defendants speaking from prison, were often prone to interruption and “freezing” due to bad internet connections. Indonesia has some of the lowest internet speeds in the world. 

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In addition, they said the online format meant they could not properly consult with defendants, and that proceedings were not always witnessed by the general public, including family members. A number of those sentenced to death were foreign nationals, some of whom who had no access to court interpreters. Lawyers also said Zoom calls were lacking in terms of security and confidentiality. 

“We cannot record the process nor take screenshots or photos unless we get the judges’ permission. Virtual hearings mean the whole process is not open for the public because the link is distributed limitedly,” lawyers who defended some of the traffickers told HRI. 

The virtual death sentences in Indonesia include the case of three Malaysians, Kumar Atchababoo, Rajandran Ramasamy, and Sanggat Ramasamy, who were sentenced to death via an online video call in November after being convicted of attempting to smuggle 28.6kg of methamphetamine into Indonesia last January. A defence lawyer said he would be appealing the decision as the online trial meant he could not communicate with his client. In February a Pakistani national and a Yemeni national were handed death sentences for methamphetamine smuggling after an online Zoom trial and sentencing.   

In Singapore last May, Punithan Genasan, a 37-year old from Malaysia, was sentenced to death by hanging via a sentencing hearing held on Zoom. Genasan, who had denied the charges, was sentenced after being found guilty of a heroin smuggling charge dating back to 2011. 

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“The use of virtual platforms to conduct criminal proceedings, especially those which result in a death sentence, can expose the defendant to significant violations of their fair trial rights and impinge on the quality of the defence,” said the report.     

As of October 2020, according to the report, there were 355 people on death row in Indonesia, of which 214 were convicted for drug offences – a 29 percent increase from 2019. Indonesia has a reputation for harsh treatment of its addicted drug users, and has seen a clampdown on its tourists drug scene since 2019.

The report found that despite the COVID pandemic there was a rise in death sentences handed out for drug offences. In 2020, courts sentenced 213 people to death for drug offences, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year, with Vietnam (78) and Indonesia (77) representing three quarters of all death sentences given for drugs. In June five people, including a mother and her daughter, were sentenced to death for their role in smuggling 26.4kg of heroin into Vietnam from Laos.  

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However, the number of executions for drug offences tumbled last year by 75 percent, due to the pandemic and also a near moratorium on drug crime executions in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top executioners for drug offences for the past decade. There were 30 confirmed executions for drug offences in 2020, down from 116 in 2019. All of the executions took place in 3 countries, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

One case involved an Egyptian truck driver who was arrested with a stash of amphetamine hidden in a truck he was driving transporting in Saudi Arabia in 2017. Human rights groups said he was tortured so badly he missed two court hearings and was denied legal representation. His family wasn’t informed of his arrest, conviction and execution, in January last year, which they found out about from fellow prisoners and a newspaper article.

Data on the death penalty for drug offences is “grossly insufficient” according to HRI, partly due to a lack of information on executions in China and Vietnam, with both nations reported to routinely execute people for drug offences. Vietnam considers the death penalty a matter of state secrecy

The report said 35 countries still retain the death penalty for drug offences. There are at least 3,000 people currently on death row for drug offences worldwide. 

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“The fact that countries continued to sentence people to death for drug offences amidst a global pandemic is abhorrent and emblematic of an overly punitive approach to drug control. Too many countries remain reluctant to move away from capital punishment and their false belief that the death penalty deters drug offences,” said Naomi Burke-Shyne, executive director at HRI. 

“While the record low number of executions for drug offences is certainly welcome, executions are only the tip of the iceberg. Executions are the most visible part of a hugely problematic system, characterised by human rights violations.”

There were no drug offence executions in the US in 2020. Although in February last year former President Donald Trump praised countries, including China, which impose the death penalty for drug offences, saying, erroneously, that “states with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.” Incumbent President Joe Biden has pledged to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. In December 2020, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted its eighth resolution calling for a moratorium of the death penalty, with record-breaking support from 123 countries