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Single mother with nine children sentenced to death for meth possession in Malaysia

Incident has ignited fierce debate on women’s rights and capital punishment in Malaysia

Maroosha Muzaffar
Tuesday 19 October 2021 21:15 BST
55-year-old Malaysian woman handed death penalty
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A 55-year-old woman was sentenced to death in Malaysia last week after being convicted for possessing drugs.

Hairun Jalmani, a single mother of nine children, was sentenced by Judge Alwi Abdul Wahab on 15 October at the Tawau High Court in Sabah, Malaysia. She was caught with 113.9g of methamphetamine in January 2018.

A harrowing video of the woman, who works as a fishmonger, crying inconsolably after she was handed the death sentence has gone viral on social networks in the country, igniting a fierce debate on women’s rights and capital punishment.

The 45-second video shows a handcuffed Jalmani breaking down in tears as she is taken away from the courthouse. She also pleaded for help outside the courtroom while sobbing uncontrollably.

Under Malaysian law, those found in possession of over 50 grams of methamphetamine face a mandatory death penalty. It is among a minority of countries — China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Singapore — that continue to impose the death penalty for drug-related offences.

Critics say the harsh penalties are overwhelmingly borne by the country’s marginalised, especially vulnerable women. They also pointed out that most women on death row in Malaysia have been sentenced under the strict drug trafficking law that “fails to take their vulnerable socio-economic realities into account”.

According to an Amnesty International report, till February 2019, as many as 1,281 people were reported to be on death row in Malaysia. Of this, 568 people, or 44 per cent, were foreign nationals. “Of the total, 73 per cent have been convicted of drug trafficking,” the report said, adding that “this figure rises to a staggering 95 per cent in the cases of women”.

“Some ethnic minorities are overrepresented on death row, while the limited available information indicates that a large proportion of those on death row are people with less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds,” the report added.

Jalmani’s case is an “example of how Malaysia’s death penalty punishes the poor [with] particular discriminations against women”, Amnesty International Malaysia said on Monday.

The agency added that “women who have been subjected to violence, abuse, and exploitation have little to no chance to get these factors taken into account at sentencing”.

In 2017, Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation senior vice-chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye — who also served as the vice-president of the Malaysian Drug Prevention Association previously — had said that socio-economic factors such as poverty and a lack of employment opportunities were some reasons for drug use among fishermen.

“Many of them live in squalid conditions, both in their dilapidated homes and on fishing boats. These are among the main factors that cause them to take drugs,” he had said.

Several activists pointed out that the death sentence was an injustice to Jalmani’s nine children.

“Why is the right to life so easily denied by the govt?” Amnesty Malaysia asked. “Who is kept safe when a single mother of nine is sentenced to death and removed from her children? What justice is served when the structural inequalities and oppressions that created the conditions for her charge remain?”

It also appealed to the Malaysian government to repeal the mandatory death penalty for all offences.

Meanwhile, on social media, several commentators criticised the death penalty.

Tehmina Kaoosji, a journalist, said: “Justice is blind and repealing the death sentence is a solitary component of reform. The mitigating circumstances are policy and societally driven i.e; patriarchal- and MUST change, else the toxic cycle quite simply continues.”

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