Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

DPRU Q&As: Dr Lucy Harry, DPRU Postdoctoral Researcher


Time to read

5 Minutes

In the latest of the DPRU's Q&A series with death penalty experts from around the world, Dr Lucy Harry, the DPRU’s new Postdoctoral Researcher, tells DPRU Research Officer Jocelyn Hutton about her research on women facing the death penalty for drug offences in Southeast Asia.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current work?

I recently completed my doctorate here at the Oxford Centre for Criminology, and my research focused on women who had been sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia, most of whom were foreign nationals. The latest broken-down statistics suggest that there are 141 women on death row in Malaysia, 95% of whom were sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and 86% of whom are foreign nationals.

I wanted to find out why and how these women became involved in drug trafficking and their pathways to death row. I interviewed stakeholders who are involved in such cases –lawyers, NGO activists, consular officials, judges, prosecutors, police, researchers, journalists and religious counsellors – in order to ascertain the relationship between structural factors that lead to women’s involvement in drug trafficking and stakeholders’ opinions of these cases. I also conducted research on 146 women’s cases between 1983, when the death penalty became mandatory for drug trafficking in Malaysia, and 2019.

What did you find in your research?

I discovered that 90% of the women sentenced to death for drug trafficking between 1983 to 2019 were foreign nationals. Many of them were engaged in precarious work prior to their arrest and claimed to have been duped into smuggling drugs by a business or romantic partner. Despite their precariousness and intersecting vulnerability, judges in Malaysia often dismiss these women’s ‘innocent carrier’ defences, especially where a woman seems to be well-educated or well-travelled – as one judge put it, a ‘lady of the world’. It appears that judges have a stereotype of a vulnerable female drug courier who is motivated by abject poverty – whereas in fact, the characteristics they describe are not mutually exclusive with economic precarity. Law enforcement agents also appeared to view female drug couriers as ‘disposable’ scapegoats who serve to bolster their arrest statistics and felt no need to investigate the wider drug networks within which they operate.

Should these women be viewed as victims of human trafficking?

There is certainly some overlap between drug trafficking and human trafficking in this context in terms of the deception, duress and exploitation of their vulnerability. Many Malaysian cases mirror the circumstances of cases such as the Filipina Mary Jane Veloso, who is on death row in neighbouring Indonesia. However, if these women were to be framed as human trafficking victims it could have potential ramifications for their rights to mobility and livelihood. For example, the Malaysian Foreign and Home Ministries proposed in 2008 that women who planned to travel abroad alone would have to obtain a letter from their parents or employers before they could leave the country. This was suggested as a means of protecting women from exploitation. However, it was dropped following a backlash from women’s rights groups.[1]

Why do you think women are at special risk of the death penalty in drugs cases?

Civil society groups have noted that migrant domestic workers may be preyed upon by drug syndicates in the region due to the fact that they already possess passports, travel in and out of the area, and may be enticed by the chance to earn extra income due to their low pay. I found cases in Malaysia where women said that they were duped into trafficking drugs as part of their journey to their job overseas – such as to work in a massage parlour, a factory or domestic work – when the person who recruited them gave them a bag to transport with drugs concealed within the lining.

I think this situation has been facilitated by the ‘commercialisation’ of migration in Asia,[2] with the emergence of unscrupulous migration brokers who may exploit prospective migrant workers. At the same time, since the turn of the twenty-first century, we have also seen the ‘feminisation of migration’ in Asia, with more women migrating abroad as breadwinners – the Philippines being a key example of this trend – and so I think these two factors intersect to create a situation whereby women migrant workers may be at risk of exploitation by drug syndicates.

Photo of an airport baggage collection area in Bangkok, Thailand
Photo credit: Unsplash.

What areas do you think need further research in the future?

My research focused on the circumstances leading to women’s involvement in drug couriering, but more research is needed to examine women’s (and especially foreign national women’s) experiences through the criminal justice system when facing capital charges, as well as studies of the conditions on death row for women – following from the excellent insights on this from Monash University and Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM).

It would also be useful to interview the families of the women under sentence of death, particularly in cases where women have dependents, as other research has highlighted that maternal imprisonment has undue impacts on children,[3] and death penalty abolitionist campaigners have highlighted the importance of considering the rights and experiences of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or executed.

What led you to work in this area?

A few years ago, the case of Maria Exposto, an Australian grandmother who was duped by an online ‘boyfriend’, came to light. I started reading more about these cases of women being arrested in Southeast Asia with drugs concealed in their bags. So far, the majority of capital punishment scholarship has focused on the US, when in fact approximately 85-95% of the world’s executions occur in Asia. Cornell Law School also found that in Asia and the Middle East, women are over-represented on death row for drug trafficking.

Harm Reduction International found that four of the seven states that sentence the highest number of people to death for drug trafficking are in Southeast Asia - Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam - and of those, Malaysia has the largest recorded female death row population. In 2018, as I was starting my doctoral research, the UN announced a prioritisation of a gender-based approach to capital punishment, so I hope that my research will help to play a part in that story.

Malaysia also has a thriving abolitionist movement – indeed, as a result of these efforts, on 10 June this year Malaysia announced plans to end the mandatory death penalty, giving judges discretion in sentencing. Currently, judges are only able to exercise discretion in drug trafficking cases if certain conditions are met under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, such as if the courier assists law enforcement in ‘disrupting’ wider drug trafficking activities. However, these stipulations are near impossible to satisfy and thus the death sentence for drug offences remains largely mandatory in practice. So, the removal of these conditions is vital to improve justice for women caught in this situation. Let us hope that these reforms will mark the beginning of the end of the use of the death penalty in Malaysia and across the rest of Southeast Asia’s retentionist states.

Profile photo of Lucy Harry Dr Lucy Harry is a post-doctoral researcher at the DPRU whose research focuses on the death penalty for drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, with a particular interest in gender-based perspectives.


[1] Similar provisions exist in Nepal preventing women from leaving the country without permission from their families. However, it is widely considered to be both unfair in terms of women’s rights and to force women to take more dangerous routes out of the country in the hands of untrustworthy agents.

[2] Pei-Chia Lan, Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan (Duke University Press 2006).

[3] Shona Minson, Maternal Sentencing and the Rights of the Child (Palgrave 2020).