Malaysia Parliament votes to scrap mandatory death sentences

Malaysia's lower house parliament building is seen in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

Malaysia’s Parliament on Monday approved a bill that would scrap mandatory death penalties and limit capital punishment to serious crimes as part of wide-ranging reforms, bringing possible reprieves to more than 1,300 prisoners on death row.

While the death sentence remains, courts will now be given the option of imposing jail sentences of between 30 and 40 years and caning not less than 12 times, Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh said. Previously, courts had no choice but to mandate hanging as punishment for a range of crimes including murder, drug trafficking, treason, kidnapping and acts of terror.

The reforms include abolishing the death penalty for some offenses that don’t cause death that fall under kidnapping and certain firearm crimes, officials said. Natural life imprisonment, in which prisoners are kept behind bars till death, will also be replaced with jail terms of between 30 and 40 years.

Singh called the reforms a significant step forward for Malaysia’s criminal justice system. He said 1,318 people are on death row in the country, including 842 who have exhausted all avenues of appeals. Most cases are linked to drug trafficking. Once the bill comes into effect, prisoners will have 90 days to file a review of their sentences but not their convictions, he said.

“A review of this sentence reflects the government’s commitment to always be open to renewing and improving legislation and justice in this country,” Singh said. He stressed that courts still have the power to uphold a death penalty after reviewing a prisoner’s sentence. The bill is expected to be approved by the upper house and the king and become law.

Malaysia has had a moratorium on hanging since 2018. The government also proposed last year to abolish mandatory death penalties, but the move was scuppered after Parliament was dissolved for a general election. Foreigners account for more than 500 of those on death row, according to the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network.

“Essentially, we have now narrowed down our death penalty to only three main groups of offenses: murder, drug trafficking and treason,” said Dobby Chew of ADPAN. “This is a good first step forward. It brings Malaysia closer in line with international standards for those countries that retain the death penalty.”