By John O'Callaghan and Kevin Lim
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's deputy prime minister on Monday said the country plans to ease its mandatory death penalty in some drug and murder cases but not abolish the ultimate punishment that human rights groups condemn as barbaric.
The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state, which has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drugs and imposes long jail terms on convicted users, has hanged hundreds of people - including dozens of foreigners - for narcotics offences in the last two decades, Amnesty International and other groups say.
That approach prompted science fiction writer William Gibson to describe Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty".
But the government, reflecting changes in "our society's norms and expectations", will put forward a draft law by the end of this year to give judges more leeway to deal with certain drug and murder cases, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told parliament.
"While there is a broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts."
To avoid execution for drug trafficking, two specific conditions must be met, he said. First, the accused must have acted only as a courier, with no other part in the supply or distribution.
"We also propose to give the courts the discretion to spare a drug courier from the death penalty if he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act, and instead sentence him to life imprisonment with caning," Teo said.
Alan Shadrake, a British author who was jailed last year for criticisms of Singapore's judiciary in his book "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock", welcomed the proposed changes.
"It's not the end of the death penalty. But it's a move in the right direction that no one really expected," he told Reuters from Kuala Lumpur where he now lives.
Singapore, whose customs forms warn arriving travelers of "death for drug traffickers" in no uncertain terms, has suspended all executions since the government began a review a year ago.
Governed by the People's Action Party since independence in 1965, Singapore is one of the safest places in the world - a feature it trumpets as it strives to be a global finance center.
But the likes of heroin and methamphetamine have not been eradicated and an active club scene fuels demand for "party drugs".
Drug offenders made up almost two-thirds of Singaporeans in prison as of the end of last year and the number of young abusers arrested has risen, said Teo, who is also minister for home affairs.
Despite the proposed changes in sentencing, Teo made clear that capital punishment is not going away.
"In particular, the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs - the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers - and also those who fund, organize or abet these activities," he said.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam, also addressing parliament, said the government wants capital punishment to apply in murder cases only when there was an intention to kill. In other instances, the mandatory death penalty will not be used.
Not all Singaporeans were in the mood for compassion, with several arguing on websites the lighter sentences would encourage crime.
"Why do we need to lower our threshold? To appease foreigners who grew up with drugs?," What Now wrote on Yahoo Singapore.
"This government is selling our future."
(Reporting by Kevin Lim; Editing by Ed Lane)