Malaysia’s apex court has commuted the death sentences and natural-life prison terms of 11 people convicted of drug trafficking, including two foreigners, in the first reviews conducted since the country’s abolition of the mandatory death penalty earlier this year.
In a ruling yesterday, state news agency Bernama reported that a three-judge panel at the Federal Court in Putrajaya commuted the sentences of all 11, including seven death row inmates, to life imprisonment of 30 years each. The group, which were all convicted of trafficking methamphetamine and cannabis, included two Thai nationals.
According to Bernama, the 11 were “the first batch of inmates whose review applications were heard by the Federal Court” since Malaysia decided in April that it would cease the mandatory use of the death penalty.
The Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Act 2023, which came into effect in July, granted judges the discretion of imposing prison sentences of between 30 and 40 years in place of the death penalty for serious crimes including murder, treason, kidnapping, terrorist acts, and drug trafficking.
Under the Act, life imprisonment has also been replaced with prison terms of between 30 and 40 years, while the death penalty has been abolished altogether for a number of lesser offenses, including kidnapping and certain firearm crimes. While the government has stopped short of full abolition –judges will retain the discretion to impose capital punishment in extreme cases – the decision represented a rare success for death penalty abolitionists, and could save the lives of more than 1,300 people currently on death row. This cohort includes 842 prisoners who have exhausted all avenues of appeal.
Bernama reported that the Federal Court will review the cases of a further 14 inmates tomorrow, and many more are expected to follow.
In a statement prior to yesterday’s Federal Court hearing, Law Minister Azalina Othman Said said that nearly 1,000 people facing capital punishment or natural-life terms have submitted applications for re-sentencing, the AFP news agency reported.
“This proves that the principle of restorative justice in the criminal justice system in Malaysia is always maintained,” she said in the statement. “This success also reflects the government’s commitment to promoting and defending universal human rights.”
In reaching its decision, the Federal Court took into account “various factors” including the inmate’s age, health and number of years already served, Azalina said.
The reform dates back to 2018, when the Pakatan Harapan government that came to power in that year’s general election imposed a moratorium on capital punishment and promised to do away with the use of the death penalty altogether. It is one of the few of the government’s promised reforms that has managed to survive the gauntlet of conservative opposition and make its way into law.
At the time of the Act’s passage, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch described it as an “important step toward aligning with international human rights norms and growing global opposition to capital punishment.”
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government is also planning to decriminalize the possession and use of small quantities of illicit drugs, citing a need to reduce prison overcrowding.