We, the undersigned, call for a comprehensive review of the death penalty and death row inmates’ rights in Singapore, made more urgent by the following points that have surfaced in relation to recent death penalty cases.
An overly high threshold for review applications
On 19 October 2020, the Court of Appeal set aside 32-year-old Malaysian Gobi Avedian’s death sentence, reinstating the original sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane given to him by the High Court in 2017.
The Court of Appeal reviewed Gobi Avedian’s case after the application filed by his counsel cleared the threshold as set out in Section 394J of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). However, we are nevertheless concerned that the threshold to review cases that have already been through the appeals process is extremely high, and would preclude the possibility of many other death row cases being reviewed, even if there are still outstanding questions and doubts.
For example, under s394J of the CPC, a case can only be reviewed if there is material that could not have been adduced earlier. Furthermore, in the latest Court of Appeal judgment for Gobi Avedian, it was made clear that it is not enough for there to be a “real possibility” that the court’s earlier decision was wrong — there has to be a “powerful probability”.
It is very alarming, in the context of the death penalty, that it is insufficient for there to be a real possibility that the court was wrong. Our position is that this is a matter of life and death, so any possibility that a mistake has been made should be closely scrutinised and reviewed.
Given that the death penalty is an irreversible punishment, it is important that every opportunity is given to the inmate to seek legal counsel and bring up matters before the court, regardless of what stage their case is at. Inmates might also be represented by different lawyers at different stages of their case, who might have advised them differently. They should not be prevented from submitting material for a review simply because their counsel had failed to present it to the court at an earlier stage.
A need for automatic review of death row cases following changes in law
Gobi Avedian’s death sentence was able to be set aside because of, among other things, developments in case law from a Court of Appeal ruling in 2019. It is unknown how many other death row inmates’ cases could be impacted by such developments.
In Gobi’s case, he was fortunate to have had a lawyer take another look at his case at a very late stage, and identify how developments in the law have made his case worth reviewing. This is very unusual: after their initial appeals have been exhausted, it is difficult for death row inmates to find lawyers to represent them or review their case.
If there are changes or developments in the law, it should not be left to a death row inmate’s fortune in finding legal counsel before their case is reviewed.
The need for accountability for breaches in lawyer-client privilege
In dismissing Syed Suhail’s criminal motion, the Court of Appeal said that M Ravi had failed to show any evidence that there had been any prejudice against his client even after it was revealed that the prison had forwarded letters that Syed had written to his then-defence counsel and his uncle, to the prosecution.
We are deeply concerned that the Singapore Prison Service breached lawyer-client privilege in such a way. Even though inmates are under the prison’s custody, it is highly unethical to copy and forward their privileged and personal communications on to a third party, much less the prosecution. Prisoners also have an expectation of privacy, and this right should be respected.
Although the deputy prosecutor had declared to the court that he had not read the letters, there has been no independent investigation into the matter.
We hope that there will be a clear accounting to the public of how something like this could have happened, and why the Attorney-General’s Chambers did not recognise that this was a breach right away, instead waiting two years to bring this matter to light.
Threats against lawyers representing death row inmates at a late stage
In dismissing a criminal motion filed by death row inmate Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, the Court of Appeal warned against invoking the review process too “lightly”, adding that defence counsels could be sanctioned for abusing the court process if they do so. The Attorney-General’s Chambers is also applying for a cost order against Syed’s lawyer, who is also M Ravi.
Following Gobi Avedian’s acquittal from his capital charge, the AGC has also taken issue with M Ravi expressing his opinions on the prosecution’s conduct in his client’s case, demanding that he apologise and retract his comments. They have since lodged a complaint against him to the Law Society.
We strongly condemn harassment and threats against lawyers who represent death row inmates, particularly M Ravi, who has taken on multiple death row inmates at a late stage. Death row inmates already face great barriers in looking for lawyers who will review their case and advise them at a late stage. Imposing the threat of penalties, or actual penalties, against lawyers who are merely doing their best to lobby for their clients raises those barriers further by deterring lawyers from wanting to take on late-stage capital cases.
We are relieved that a man has been saved, but are alarmed by how close we have come to a wrongful execution. We note that Gobi Avedian had already exhausted his legal appeal as well as the clemency process, and was at risk of imminent execution. If not for M Ravi’s intervention at a late stage, Gobi could have been executed without anyone realising that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
In the case of Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi as well, his team of pro bono lawyers fought for him to be acquitted of a capital drug trafficking charge, which he was convicted of by the Court of Appeal in 2015. Ilechukwu is now able to return home to Nigeria after living on death row in Singapore for years, only because his lawyers didn’t give up even at a late stage.
This highlights a serious problem with capital punishment. It is a harsh and irreversible punishment, and a life, once taken, cannot be returned. One innocent life taken by the state is one too many — this is why the death penalty should be abolished as soon as possible.
- Repeal Section 394J of the Criminal Procedure Code that sets a high threshold for cases to be reviewed
- When there are changes to laws or case law that will affect death row inmates, their cases should be automatically reviewed
- Launch an independent investigation to look into how often the prison might have forwarded inmate correspondence, including privileged communication, to the AGC
- Put an end to the harassment and threats against lawyers who represent death row inmates
- An immediate moratorium of the death penalty, with a view to abolish capital punishment
Transformative Justice Collective
Community Action Network
No Readgrets Book Club
Beyond the Hijab
SG Climate Rally
We Who Witness
The Bi+ Collective
Tow Ying Xiang