Was innocent man hanged due to procedure?

Posted by Teo Hwee Nak and Joy Frances under Human Rights Watch on 27 September 2003

When Mr Ravi asked the CJ if the public prosecutor was "still maintaining that an innocent man be hanged because of procedure", the CJ answered: "Yes, the answer is yes." Was Vignes Mourthi innocent? Was he hanged due to the legal procedures in Singapore?

The hanging controversy

But it was based on wrong figures from PM's interview

by Teo Hwee Nak and Joy Frances hweenak@newstoday.com.sg

CALL it uncanny timing. Call it an unfortunate remark.

Just when rumblings about executions in Singapore have started again, Malaysian drug offender Vignes Mourthi, whose case has been highlighted repeatedly by a civil society group, lost his final legal battle and will be hanged at 6am today.

The debate about hangings was renewed on Tuesday when Mr Tim Sebastian, host of BBC's HARDtalk show, asked Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong about the number of executions that had been carried out in Singapore this year.

To that, PM Goh responded: "Oh, I think probably it will be in the region of about 70 to 80. I do not know the precise number. I stand to be corrected."

The AFP news agency immediately pounced on this number which now turns out to be completely wrong.

It pointed out that Singapore had dramatically escalated the use of the death penalty this year. It based this on the off-the-cuff figure mentioned by PM Goh and the fact that 28 people had been executed last year and 27 in 2001.

Think Centre president Sinapan Samydorai chipped in by telling AFP that he was shocked by the number and "it's much higher than we expected".

The same Think Centre had also sent in a plea to President SR Nathan last week on behalf of Mourthi, 23. He was found guilty of giving 27.65g of heroin to an undercover officer.

Mr Samydorai told Today: "We believe that there's a chance that he is innocent based on the circumstantial evidence we read in the media."

But whatever the merits of Mourthi's case, the Prime Minister's press secretary clarified that the basis of the latest controversy PM Goh's estimate of the executions had been wrong in the first place.

In fact, 10 executions have been carried out this year.

Although PM Goh had said that he did not know the precise number, some damage has been done.

The dramatic spike in the figure mentioned by PM Goh had created unnecessary media attention on an issue as old as capital punishment and human rights.

On learning the real figure, Mr Samydorai told Today he had suspected "something must be really wrong" when he heard the figure given by PM Goh.

But he responded to AFP based on that figure as "the PM should be informed of his answer because most people would have taken it as correct".

Lawyer and NMP Chandra Mohan said, however, that the PM cannot be blamed because "as the PM, you don't get too bothered by such statistics, and are more concerned about the economy".

"But perhaps it would have been better if he had said he wasn't sure and would check the figure," he added.

But more than the immediate remark, the controversy can be linked to the fact that Singapore has always got flak from the West for its policy of hanging drug offenders. And this was just the cue that some were waiting for.

Said Mr Mohan: "Foreign activists have always questioned our strict regime as far as the laws are concerned. Human rights is a strong issue in Europe and America and Singapore would be a prime target because we're one of the strictest in this aspect."

Even Mourthi's case received some unusual attention from the media, partly due to the actions of his feisty lawyer, Mr M Ravi.

Yesterday, Mr Ravi went before three Court of Appeal Judges, including the Chief Justice, Mr Yong Pung How, to make a fourth and final appeal.

During the hearing, Mr Ravi questioned the President's right to grant clemency without the input of three judges, as the Constitution states that a President "may" do so.

He also raised 32 other points about various issues related to miscarriage of justice arguments that he later took outside the courtroom when the judges dismissed his appeal.

The judges said their court was not a constitutional court and therefore could not decide the matter.

When Mr Ravi asked the CJ if the public prosecutor was "still maintaining that an innocent man be hanged because of procedure", the CJ answered: "Yes, the answer is yes."

Lawyers attributed the attention to the Mourthi case to Mr Ravi's unusual approach.

Said criminal lawyer Shashi Nathan: "The whole process of law has been duly applied in this case. Criminal lawyers know that there is no other avenue."

What also gave this case an interesting twist was the involvement of veteran opposition politician JB Jeyaretnam.

Mourthi's father, Mr Mourthi Vasu, had sought help from Mr Jeyaretnam, who in turn asked Mr Ravi to represent Mourthi. In a statement to the court, Mr Jeyaretnam said that evidence given by a police officer that allegedly recorded a conversation between the accused and himself bore no date and could have been written later.

The attention, however, whether negative or positive, would not serve any purpose in getting the Government to change its policy, said observers.

Mr Samydorai does not expect the policy to change for "maybe 10 to 20 years".

Another lawyer said the Government had been criticised for "umpteen years" and had never buckled. "There's no reason they would now," he said.


26 Sept 03,Today Online: The hanging controversy

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