Singapore retains the mandatory death penalty for ordinary crimes, including murder, kidnapping, treason and drug-related offences. Singapore is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) nor has it signed or ratified the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR allowing for the right of individual petition or the Second Optional Protocol aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Recently, there have been encouraging developments in Singapore. In July 2012, the Government of Singapore announced in Parliament that new laws would be drafted to abolish the mandatory imposition of the death penalty for certain categories of drug trafficking offences and some homicide offences. The draft bills were read in Parliament for the first time in October 2012 and passed in November 2012. Under the new laws, judges have a discretion to impose life imprisonment in lieu of the death penalty in cases of non-intentional murders and drug trafficking. The introduction of the new legislation provides an opportunity for all accused people- and those presently under sentence of death who meet the necessary requirements- to seek a review of their sentences, potentially saving their lives. The Government has also announced a moratorium on executions until the legislative process has been completed. Read our press release.
Yong Vui Kong v Public Prosecutor  SGCA 20
We assisted local lawyer M. Ravi in Singapore in the case of Yong Vui Kong, in bringing an appeal against the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking. Vui Kong, a twenty-four year old Malaysian, was due to be executed in Singapore in December 2009, following the denial of clemency by the President of Singapore. He admitted at trial that he was a drug courier and was convicted of trafficking 47.27 grams of heroin. He was 19 years old at the time he was charged and had no previous criminal record.
Challenge to the mandatory death penalty
We assisted in the preparation of Vui Kong’s appeal to the Court of Appeal of Singapore, challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory death sentence. In 2010, the appeal was heard and dismissed by the Court of Appeal. The Court held that there is no specific prohibition of inhuman punishment contained within the Singapore Constitution, and therefore the mandatory death penalty, even if it did constitute inhuman punishment, is not unconstitutional. The Court also rejected the argument that customary international law prohibits the mandatory death penalty as a form of inhuman punishment. In addition, the Court concluded that any developments in customary international law or comparative constitutional law would have no effect upon the right to life provision in the Singapore Constitution, affirming that the appropriateness of the mandatory death penalty is a matter for Parliament, not the Courts. The decision of the Court of Appeal is clearly out of step with current norms on the death penalty as it fails to take account of contemporary human rights standards established by international human rights tribunals and nearly every constitutional court around the world, namely that the imposition of the mandatory death penalty violates the right to life as it is arbitrary and amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. To read the Court of Appeal judgment, click here.
Challenge to Clemency Process
We also assisted in preparing Vui Kong’s clemency petition. Shortly before judgment was delivered in 2010, Singapore’s Law Minister made several remarks in favour of Vui Kong’s execution. In Singapore, even though clemency is exercised by the President, the Cabinet advises the President in the exercise of this function. We assisted M Ravi in preparing an application for judicial review of the clemency process, on the basis that procedures are unfair and because of the Cabinet Minister’s apparent bias. Contemporary human rights principles indicate that procedural fairness and the rules of natural justice must apply to the clemency process. The procedures should enable the condemned individual to receive adequate notice of the clemency hearing and full disclosure of all material so that informed representations can be made. This is especially important in Singapore where the death penalty is mandatory and the Mercy Committee effectively determines who should live and who should die.
In spite of current legal trends, the judicial review application was dismissed by the High Court on 13 August 2010. Justice Chong ruled that the power to grant clemency “rests solely with the Cabinet” and that the President has no discretion in this. He also held that the courts have no power to review the clemency process, as he found that the principles of natural justice do not apply to this executive function.
The appeal hearing took place in January 2011 and the case was, dismissed by the Court of Appeal in April 2011. The Court affirmed the High Court’s ruling that the President can only exercise the clemency power in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet, and cannot act in his own personal discretion contrary to such advice. The Court also rejected the argument that the rules of natural justice, and in particular, (1) the rule against bias; and (2) the rule providing for a right of hearing, applies to the clemency process in Singapore. To read the full judgment, click here.
In July 2011, a petition to the President seeking clemency was submitted on behalf of Vui Kong in order to preserve his life. An excellent 25 minute documentary on the case and the work of his local lawyers to save Vui Kong was aired on Al Jazeera news.
On 14th November 2013, the High Court of Singapore lifted the death sentence imposed on Vui Kong and imposed a sentence of life in prison and 15 strokes of the cane. Vui Kong is the first drug trafficker on death row to have his sentence reduced under amendments made to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Read our news release.
To read an interview with the Executive Directors specifically in relation to the death penalty for drug offences, click here.
In 2011, we assisted local counsel M. Ravi in a judicial review application in the case of Ramalingam Ravinthran. In 2006, Mr Ravinthran and his co-accused were arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Despite the fact that both defendants were in possession of the same bag containing the drugs, they were charged differently. Mr Ravinthran was charged with possession of a quantity of controlled drugs that met the threshold which would carry the mandatory death penalty, and his co-accused was charged with a reduced quantity which rendered a non-capital sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Mr. Ravithran’s appeal to the Court of Appeal against his conviction and sentence was dismissed in September 2010. A judicial review application was subsequently made, arguing that the use of prosecutional discretion in selecting the charges was unconstitutional. In May 2011, the High Court dismissed the judicial review application and a Motion to re-open the judgment was filed in the Court of Appeal in September 2011.
Regrettably, in early 2012, the Court of Appeal, whilst allowing the case to be re-opened, dismissed the Motion. The Court held that there is a presumption of legality in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the discretion was exercised inappropriately in this case. The Court also held that the Attorney General has no obligation to disclose his reasons for making a particular decision.
Despite the ruling on the merits, it is worth noting that the Court of Appeal expressly recognised that the Attorney General’s prosecutorial power is not immune from judicial review proceedings if it has been exercised in breach of the Constitution.
In 2010, British journalist Alan Shadrake was convicted by the High Court of Singapore of contempt of court and sentenced to 8 weeks in jail as a result of allegations made in his book, ‘Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In the Dock’, about the application of the death penalty in Singapore. The book includes interviews with a former executioner at Singapore’s Changi Prison, who he reports has executed about 1,000 prisoners between 1959 and 2006.
Whilst not a death penalty case, we provided free legal assistance to Mr. Shadrake as his book raised concerns about the possible execution of the innocent and discrimination in the use of the death penalty. It draws attention to serious issues that require further investigation and may even call for a commission of inquiry into the application of the death penalty in Singapore. The treatment of Mr. Shadrake received international condemnation, including a debate in the House of Lords in the UK Parliament. (Click here to read the transcript of the House of Lords debate). It also raised serious concerns about fundamental human rights issues in Singapore, ranging from freedom of the press to the application of the death penalty. The Executive Directors voiced their concerns in an article, entitled “Death and Discrimination”, which was published in The Guardian . The article led to an Editorial comment in the same paper.
We assisted Mr. Shadrake and his legal team throughout the proceedings at trial and appeal. In 2011, the Court of Appeal in Singapore dismissed Mr. Shadrake’s appeal and sentenced him to six weeks’ imprisonment and a fine of S$20,000. The outcome of the appeal was extremely disappointing, in particular the decision to uphold the imposition of a custodial sentence on Mr Shadrake for the contempt of scandalising the court.