Several Singapore NGOs on Saturday (24 October) called for a “comprehensive” and “automatic” review of death row cases in the country as well as the rights of inmates in such cases.
The joint statement, made by the Transformative Justice Collective, Community Action Network, Function 8, Post-Museum, No Readgrets, Crit Talk, and Penawar was posted on the Collective’s website.
Their statement was made in light of developments such as the Court of Appeal’s decision to set aside Malaysian prisoner Gobi Avedian’s capital sentence after the application filed by his counsel Ravi Madasamy met the threshold as stipulated in Section 394J of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
They raised concerns on how “extremely high” the threshold is to review cases that have already been through the appeals process such as that of Mr Gobi.
Such a threshold, said the collective, would “preclude the possibility of many other death row cases being reviewed, even if there are still outstanding questions and doubts” regarding how such cases are handled.
Under Section 394J of the CPC, a case can only be reviewed if there is material that could not have been adduced earlier.
They highlighted that the Court of Appeal’s decision in Mr Gobi’s case made it clear that a “real possibility” of the court’s earlier decision being wrong was present — rather, a “powerful possibility” must be found.
“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that a mistake has been made should be closely scrutinised and reviewed,” they said, in calling for the provision to be repealed.
It is also crucial for death row inmates to be given “every opportunity” to obtain “legal counsel and bring up matters before the court” regardless of the stage of their cases, they said.
Inmates, they noted, might also be represented by different lawyers at different stages of their case. They might have received different legal advice from different lawyers.
“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,” they said.
Changes in law should prompt automatic review of death row cases: Transformative Justice Collective
Noting that changes in case law were a significant factor in the Court of Appeal’s decision to set aside Mr Gobi’s capital sentence, the NGOs said that “it should not be left to a death row inmate’s fortune in finding legal counsel before their case is reviewed”.
“It is unknown how many other death row inmates’ cases could be impacted by such developments,” said the collective.
Mr Gobi’s case, the Transformative Justice Collective noted, was “very unusual”, as it is typically challenging for death row inmates to find lawyers to represent them or review their case at such a late stage.
“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,” they said.
Prison Service’s alleged breach of lawyer-client privilege, Attorney-General’s Chambers’ alleged harassment of lawyers representing death row inmates should be scrutinised
The NGOs also criticised the alleged breach of lawyer-client privilege and right to confidentiality by the Singapore Prison Service, as demonstrated in the case of Singaporean death row prisoner Syed Suhail Syed Zin.
Community Action Network in a statement last month said that the alleged breach “only came to light” this month when the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) sent a letter to the court on 18 September, in which the AGC admitted that it was forwarded five letters written by Mr Syed while his case was still pending before the Court of Appeal in 2018.
Five of the letters were addressed to his uncle, while one was addressed to the said counsel.
“According to the AGC, the correspondence came into its possession “from the SPS on 10 May 2018 and 7 June 2018 for the purpose of preparing for the Prosecution’s response.”
“Under 127A of the Prison Regulations, the prison is allowed to open, read, and even copy or withhold letters sent by or to inmates.
“However, the regulations also state that the right to copy or withhold letters does not apply to “letters written by a prisoner to the prisoner’s legal adviser and letters written by a prisoner’s legal adviser.”
The Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Syed’s criminal motion on the matter, stating that his counsel–who is also Mr Ravi–had failed to demonstrate that there had been any prejudice against his client even after it was revealed that the prison had forwarded letters that Mr Syed had written to his then-defence counsel and his uncle.
The NGOs echoed Community Action Network’s view, stating that “it is highly unethical to copy and forward their privileged and personal communications” to any third party, “much less the prosecution”, as they “also have an expectation of privacy”.
The collective subsequently urged for “a clear accounting to the public of how something like this could have happened”.
“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,” they said, adding that it is also imperative to scrutinise why the AGC did not recognise that this was a breach right away.
They also condemned the alleged “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”.
In both Mr Gobi and Mr Syed’s cases, Mr Ravi has been subject to actions such as having a complaint to the Law Society and a cost order made against him in the respective cases by the AGC.
“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,” they said.
“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,” they added.