Rights groups on Tuesday hailed Singapore's decision to ease mandatory death sentences for homicide and drug trafficking but urged the government to go further and totally abolish capital punishment.
Singapore, which carries out executions by hanging, on Monday unveiled legal reforms that would enable judges to impose life imprisonment on low-level drug couriers and people who commit murder with "no outright intention to kill".
Judges currently have no choice but to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of murder or trafficking in illegal drugs above specific volumes.
Under the new laws, expected to come into force later this year, inmates on death row would also have the chance to ask for their sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment.
"Amnesty International welcomes the Singaporean Government's move towards putting an end to the mandatory death sentencing for drug trafficking and homicide cases," the human rights group said in a statement.
The proposed changes could save the lives of inmates on death row, it added.
Officials say there are currently 35 inmates on death row in Singapore, although executions have been suspended since July 2011 as part of a review that led to the proposed new legislation.
From 2004 to 2010, a total of 26 Singaporeans and 12 foreigners were executed in Singapore, according to government figures.
A group called the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) also welcomed the changes in the application of the death penalty as "a positive message that the government recognises the need for legal reform".
However, Amnesty and the SADPC called for the complete abolition of the death penalty and questioned the government's long-held position that capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent to serious crimes.
"There is no evidence to demonstrate that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments," Amnesty said.
Hanging, which dates back to British colonial rule, is the only method of execution used in the Southeast Asian nation, which prides itself on its low crime rate.
Among the inmates awaiting execution is Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian drug courier convicted of trafficking 47 grams (1.65 ounces) of heroin in 2007.
Neighbouring Malaysia also carries out executions by hanging.
Yong's lawyer M Ravi, who represents three other inmates on death row, welcomed the government's plan to ease the mandatory death sentence.
"This is a remarkable first step, kudos to the government," he told AFP.
Ravi said that once the new laws are enacted, he would appeal for the death sentences on his four clients -- all convicted as drug couriers -- to be reduced to life imprisonment.
Despite the criticism, the government is unlikely to budge more from its insistence that capital punishment should remain.
"We hear and take note of these views, but ultimately we have to do what we believe is right for Singapore," Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Monday.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also minister for home affairs, said the mandatory death penalty would still apply to the "kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers" and others involved closely in the drugs trade.