OP-ED: The story of a man who needs help but who will be hanged in Singapore

Nazeri bin Lajim, a 64-year-old Singaporean, has only hours left to live. Singapore intends to execute him in the early hours of Friday morning. His family was informed by the prison 7 days in advance.

His younger sister Nazira says that he is her favorite brother. He takes after their father and is soft-spoken, gentle, and a careful dresser. Nazira says his main flaw is that he is weak-willed and easily influenced, but he is fundamentally a good person.

Their family went from a comfortable life to poverty after their father, who’d been an army administrator, lost his job when the British army withdrew from Singapore in the 1970s. Their father died when Nazira and Nazeri were teenagers.

Life at home was incredibly difficult. Their mother, a housewife suddenly left to feed nine children by herself, had to take on multiple jobs. Sometimes the family only had food on the table because of the generosity of neighbors and donations from a church community.

“We were like strays, you know?” Nazira tells me. Their mother focused on the younger kids, while the older siblings were expected to fend for themselves. Nazira left school after her O Levels to work two jobs.

Home became a place of anxiety, deprivation, resentment, and trauma. “The family disintegrated,” Nazira says. She remembers that their mother and eldest brother would beat Nazeri when he was at home, so he stayed away, spending time outside with friends instead.

Nazeri’s drug use preceded Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, which stipulates harsh punishments for drug offenses. He started using MX pills (known in the US as Quaaludes) when he was only 14 years old. By the time the law was amended to introduce the death penalty for illegal drug possession in 1975, Nazeri was already using heroin. He was only 16 years old.

Successive Singapore governments have asserted that the harsh penalties in the Misuse of Drugs Act are meant to serve as a deterrent. They say we have to think about the people whose lives have been wrecked by drugs. Nazeri is one such person. Instead of receiving support and treatment, however, Nazeri was repeatedly arrested and punished. Nazira estimates that he has spent 3/4 of his life incarcerated. It frustrated her that he would relapse every time he was released. She wanted him to stop, but he struggled.

His experiences within the criminal system pushed Nazeri’s self-esteem to rock bottom. “Naz, society looks down on me. I’m the worst person in society,” he once told his sister. He described himself as “sampah masyarakat”, which translates to “trash of society”.

On 13th April 2012, Nazeri was arrested with another in possession of two bundles of drugs. They were eventually charged with the capital offense of trafficking over 15g of heroin.

Nazeri didn’t deny that he had intended to sell the drugs. Rich drug users have the money to keep buying drugs, but poor people don’t have the same resources. It’s not unusual for users to end up selling drugs as well, to fund their own consumption.

In Nazeri’s defense, he said that he had only ordered one bundle of drugs, from which he intended to keep some for his own consumption. This would mean that the amount he intended to sell would be below the 15g threshold that would incur the death penalty.

The High Court judge noted that Nazeri’s lawyer didn’t question the co-accused about this aspect during cross-examination, even though the co-accused’s testimony contradicted Nazeri’s.

At trial, Nazeri also claimed that he consumed more heroin than he had stated in his police statement. He claimed that he had been told to revise the amount downwards, because the police didn’t believe that he consumed that much heroin.

In Singapore, there is no legal right to counsel being present during police interrogations.

Nazeri’s statement was taken without him having access to legal advice. During his prior statement under caution [before formal statement], he said his “mind cannot work”.

The High Court judge noted that Nazeri’s lawyer did not put this allegation, that police told him to revise his statement, to the police officers testifying at trial either. The judge ultimately didn’t believe Nazeri.

Nazeri was sentenced to death on 21st September 2017. His co-accused was found to be a courier and received a Certificate of Substantive Assistance from the prosecution, which allowed the court to sentence him to life imprisonment with caning instead.

In 2021, Ravi Madasamy, better known as M Ravi, took over Nazeri’s case and sought a review by the court. He argued that there had been new legal developments, that a psychiatric report could prove Nazeri’s heavy use of heroin, and that the former defense lawyer had provided inadequate legal assistance.

Nazeri’s former lawyer accepted that he had overlooked certain matters, which could have helped the defense. That said, the court found that his conduct did not amount to “egregious incompetence” and that it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Nazeri also submitted a psychiatrist’s report to the court as new evidence. To convince the court to review their own decision, however, the bar for considering new “compelling” material is really high. It has to show almost conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The psychiatrist’s report submitted by Nazeri, which supported his claim of heavy use of heroin, which would bolster his defense of keeping more drugs for himself, did not convince the court. His application for a review of his case failed.

While on death row, Nazeri gets visits from his sister and his ex-wife Sheila. In fact, Sheila is his most regular visitor. She describes their relationship as being very tight. Nazeri also loves being visited by their son, of whom he’s very proud, and his step-daughter.

During visits, Nazeri only allows people to talk about happy things. He doesn’t want to waste their precious time on sadness and tears. He wants to joke with them, laugh with them and feel joy and warmth.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Whenever I speak to Nazira, I can feel her turmoil, all the messy emotions with which she has to struggle constantly. She lurches from grief to rage, her voice rising and falling with the intensity of her feelings.

Nazira loves her brother deeply. She’s frustrated with him for not having been able to stop using drugs, even as she recognizes that addiction is an illness for which he needs treatment. She feels guilt for not having helped him more before. She’s terrified of what he’s facing. Nazira rages against the death penalty. Callous comments online, in which people say drug traffickers should be hanged more quickly, rather than wasting taxpayer money feeding them in prison, get under her skin and fill her with anger about her heartless compatriots.

Not everyone in her family approves of Nazira speaking publicly about her brother. Some relatives see Nazeri being on death row as a family shame, which should be kept quiet. Nazira, however, says that she has to speak out and to fight for her brother. It’s all she can do for him now.

When we met last night, Nazira said that her brother is afraid of what is coming. Who wouldn’t be? He told her that some prisoners have to be carried to the gallows when their turn came because the strength had gone out of their legs and they cannot walk.

Nazira says she isn’t surprised by that in the slightest. When she received the dreaded phone call from the prison last Friday, informing her that his execution had been scheduled, she’d cried and wailed. “I also couldn’t walk,” she said. “And I’m not the one going to the gallows.”

Nazira told me to “tell the whole world” about Nazeri. She says he’s a man who has struggled with drugs his whole life, a man who needs treatment, care and support to recover from addiction. Instead, the state is planning to kill him.

Nazira says that she comforts her brother, and herself, by telling him that, if he is hanged, he will be going to a better place. A place far from the struggle that this life has been, so full of violence, suffering, trauma, pain and shame. When we talk, she repeats this over and over, trying to convince herself that, if the worst happens, her brother will at least be freed from a life that hasn’t been kind to him, but she also wants to fight, to keep him here on this earth with her for as long as she can.

The state sees Nazeri as nothing more than a drug trafficker who doesn’t deserve to live. Nazira sees the full person who is a brother, husband and father who loves and is loved. A flawed man who has struggled, but who cares and is cared for. She will not forsake him. We should not either.

By Kirsten Han


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