The exchange of words between Singapore and Malaysia over the former’s application of the death penalty has taken another turn. On Monday, Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), a Malaysia “human rights lawyers organisation that seeks to protect and promote human rights and civil liberties”, charged that the Singapore Attorney General (AG) has made “threats” against lawyer N Surendran.
Surendran, a former parliamentarian in Malaysia and a co-founder of the LFL, is representing several Malaysians sentenced to death in Singapore. Among them is Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, who was scheduled to be hanged in Singapore on 24 May this year for trafficking heroin into the city state. He was given a last-minute reprieve when the Singapore Court of Appeal granted him a stay of execution for him to look for legal representation to lodge a challenge over the rejection of his clemency appeal by the President of Singapore.
In its statement on Monday, LFL said that the Singapore AG had – “in a formal note to the [Singapore] High Court” – “made the accusation that Surendran had made “scandalous allegations against Singapore and its legal system, including accusing Singapore of acting in total disregard of international legal norms and decent world opinion.”
LFL said the Singapore AG’s allegations “amounts to a serious threat against Surendran.”
“The threat against Surendran is an unlawful interference by the state of Singapore with the death row prisoners’ right to counsel and legal assistance,” the lawyers’ group said.
“It is a calculated attempt to sabotage Pannir’s legal team, as well as hindering legal assistance from Malaysia for the other Malaysian prisoners,” it added.
“In doing so, Singapore is also in flagrant breach of international law and standards; the right to be provided legal assistance is enshrined in Article 14(3)(d) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”
LFL called on Singapore to withdraw the “baseless allegations and unwarranted threats”, and urged the Malaysian government “to take up this matter with the Singapore authorities to ensure that Malaysians facing capital charges in Singapore are not prejudiced or deprived of legal defence or assistance.”
Last week, LFL said that 10 clemency appeals by inmates in Singapore’s death row to the country’s President were rejected, and that the rejections were an indication that Singapore was getting ready for an “execution binge”. Among the 10 appeals made, LFL said 4 were by Malaysians.
“The Malaysians form the largest group of foreign nationals now facing execution in Changi,” Surendran said then, referring to the prison in Singapore.
“In Singapore, the rejection of a clemency petition is usually followed soon after by the prisoner’s execution,” LFL said. “Hence, it is probable that these prisoners will be executed within weeks from now.”
The group added that the “execution binge” was “in total disregard of international legal norms and decent world opinion.”
In its response to LFL’s statement, the Singapore MHA denied that Malaysians were targeted for executions.
“All foreigners who visit or live in Singapore must abide by our laws,” the MHA told local media, “and if they choose to break our laws, must be prepared to be subject to our laws.”
In May, Singapore’s minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, revealed that the Malaysia government had made three representations on behalf of Malaysians in Singapore’s death row, calling on Singapore to spare their lives.
“Let me be quite clear, it is not possible for us to do so, regardless of how many requests we receive,” said Mr Shanmugam, a fierce defender of the use of capital punishment by Singapore.
“It is not tenable to give a special moratorium to Malaysians, and impose it on everyone else, including Singaporeans who commit offences which carry the death penalty,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam disclosed that “one in five traffickers who brought in drugs above the threshold that brings the death penalty was also a Malaysian.”
“How do we go easy on Malaysians in the face of these statistics?” he asked. “And if we did, what will it mean for the rule of law? It will become a joke if there is a request made and we go easy. That is not the way Singapore works.”
In his response, Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Liew Vui Keong, whom Mr Shanmugam revealed had made those representations to the Singapore government, rejected the latter’s suggestion that he had interfered in Singapore’s judicial system.
“The allegation that I have interfered with their judicial system is totally unfounded and baseless. It’s purely a figment of an imagination on someone’s part,” said Mr Liew, who is Malaysia’s de-facto Law Minister.
Singapore is a stauch supporter of the death penalty, often defending it in international forums, despite calls for reform. It carries out executions under a cloak of opacity, disclosing little about the execution process, and giving the Cabinet, instead of the President, the power to decide on presidential clemency appeals.
Singapore also grants the Public Prosecutor (PP), a role which the AG performs, the power to grant a “certificate of cooperation” (COC) to an accused. A COC, when granted, allows the court to then have the discretion to mete out a life sentence, instead of the mandatory death sentence.
Critics say giving the PP such powers tie the hands of the courts, and grants the PP powers to effectively decide on who gets to live, or die.
In the meantime, it is left to be seen how many executions Singapore will be carrying out in the coming weeks, given that 10 appeals have been rejected in the past week.