Singapore: Halt executions and cease punitive cost orders against death-row lawyers
Singapore’s authorities must immediately halt any impending executions, and cease using punitive cost orders against lawyers representing death-row inmates, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today.
On 5 August 2022, Singapore executed two persons, Abdul Rahim Shapiee and Ong Seow Ping, for “drug possession for the purpose of trafficking”. Their execution followed the Court of Appeal’s denial of Abdul Rahim Shapiee’s stay of execution request based on a lawsuit he and 23 other death-row inmates had filed alleging obstructions in their access to lawyers.
“The death penalty is wholly incompatible with human rights and the Rule of Law. The Singapore government has stepped up the number of executions this year with ten people executed so far,” said ICJ Commissioner Ambiga Sreenevasan. “Singapore and all other countries that continue to impose capital punishment must revisit their position.”
Executions constitute a violation of the right to life and are the ultimate cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. While the ICJ opposes the death penalty under any circumstances, international law and standards on the use of the death penalty are clear that it may never be imposed upon a conviction for drug offences since such offences, in turn, do not involve “intentional killing”, the international law threshold for capital crimes.
The ICJ is also deeply concerned about reports of punitive cost orders against lawyers who have represented clients on death row. Singaporean courts have imposed such orders against lawyers of death-row inmates because they had filed late-stage applications to the courts on behalf of their clients, purportedly on the basis that these applications were “frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process”.
For instance, on 23 June 2022, the High Court ordered two lawyers to pay the Attorney-General SG$20,000 (approx. US$14,500) in costs for a failed application on behalf of 17 death-row inmates who alleged that, as ethnic minorities, they were more likely to be investigated, prosecuted and sentenced to the death penalty for drug offences. The High Court held that the application lacked basis, and was an abuse of process, and that its lack of merit would have been apparent to “reasonable and competent counsel”.
The imposition of punitive cost orders has obstructed death-row inmates’ access to justice and effective remedies, their right to legal counsel — with several having had to represent themselves in court — and, in turn, their right to a fair trial and, ultimately, their right to life. Notably, the 24 death-row inmates who filed the lawsuit on 1 August 2022 were unable to secure legal representation despite approaching several lawyers, as the lawyers were allegedly afraid of adverse cost orders.
“This is a violation of the basic right of every person to legal representation of their choice. Every human being is entitled to be treated with dignity, more so those who are fighting for their lives,” said Sreenevasan.
The 23 June High Court’s holding on cost orders is based on an overly expansive and impermissible interpretation of what constitutes “lack of merit” or “abuse of process”. In fact, the claims raised in the application are consistent with the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in February 2022 that Singapore review and amend its “laws and policies leading to racially disparate impacts in the criminal justice system”, and implement “effective national strategies or plans of action aimed at eliminating structural discrimination”. In addition, on 29 July, a group of independent experts of the Human Rights Council expressed concern that in Singapore “a disproportionate number of those being sentenced to death for drug-related offences are minority persons and tend to be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Imposing punitive cost orders based on overbroad and impermissible readings of “lack of merit” or “abuse or process” violates the Rule of Law and international standards on the independence of lawyers, such as the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which make clear that lawyers must be able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.
The ICJ calls on the Singapore authorities to halt all further executions, end the use of mandatory death sentences for drug offences, and immediately put in place a moratorium on all executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
The ICJ also calls on the Singapore authorities to put in place safeguards to ensure that all lawyers are able to carry out their professional duties without fear of punitive cost orders, including through reviewing and reforming existing provisions related to what constitutes claims that are “frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process”.
Since 30 March 2022, Singapore has executed ten people, mainly for drug-related offences, after a pause of two years. According to information the ICJ received from Transformative Justice Collective, a Singaporean group campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty, more than 50 people remain on death row.
Under international human rights law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the “most serious crimes”, involving intentional killing. International law is clear that it may never be applied to drug-related offences.
In their statement of 29 July 2022, the group of UN Human Rights Council independent experts expressed profound concern about reports of “increasing pressure and acts of intimidation by the authorities against […] legal professionals […] who […] represent persons on death row, and the chilling effect such acts have on civic space.” The independent experts were the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Working Group on arbitrary detention; Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues; and Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Under Principle 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, governments must ensure that lawyers “are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”, and “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”NewsPress releases