By Preeti Jha, The Washington Post

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When the ostensible murder victim showed up at a family funeral, Gunalakshmi Karupaya thought her prayers had been answered. Here was living evidence that could overturn her husband's death sentence.

Yet more than two years later, Mainthan Arumugam remains in prison, one of nearly 1,300 inmates facing execution in Malaysia. It may be the largest death row in Southeast Asia — and one that, like Mainthan, has become a rallying point in a country on the cusp of a potentially historic legal shift.

After an upset election in 2018 that ended the ruling coalition’s six-decade run, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government issued an immediate moratorium on executions. It also promised to abolish capital punishment, a legacy of British rule and a mandatory penalty for almost a dozen offenses. The subject has been intensely debated ever since.

Any change would have significance beyond Malaysia’s borders. Nearly half of the prisoners on death row here are foreign nationals, and more than 100 are women, Amnesty International reported this past fall.

The report found that 73 percent of death row inmates had been sentenced for drug trafficking, with most convicted of transporting small amounts of drugs. It also documented the use of torture for “confessions,” restricted access to legal counsel and a pattern of unfair trials.

The circumstances that entangled Mainthan, a father of four who worked as a scrap metal trader in the capital, represent “the most preposterous case,” the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia told a public forum in November. “Mainthan was sentenced to death for a murder,” Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu recounted. “There was indeed a body. But the person who he supposedly killed is still alive.”

He and three other men were arrested in August 2004, a few days after police found charred body parts in a Kuala Lumpur neighborhood. They were charged with the murder of a man who had eloped with the sister-in-law of a friend of Mainthan’s. During the trial, Mainthan said he had only helped find the couple, who were brought to his house before the friend took them away.