Twenty-three death row prisoners in Singapore have come together to file a historic suit against the government, accusing the authorities of scuttling their right to justice after a series of troubling executions of inmates who were forced to defend themselves without lawyers in their final hours.
The suit was filed this afternoon after a painful process over the past week, with no access to counsel to help them with the elaborate paperwork.
It comes ahead of four executions scheduled for prisoners convicted of various offences under Singapore's controversial drug laws.
MalaysiaNow earlier reported that two double executions would be carried out on Aug 2 and 5, ahead of Singapore's first post-pandemic National Day celebration next week.
Today's suit, seen as the first time that so many inmates have come together to sue the government, initially involved 17 prisoners who failed in their bid to file it on July 25.
One of them is Abdul Rahim Shapiee, a 45-year-old Singaporean Malay who was also part of a separate suit alongside 16 others accusing the authorities of ethnic bias in their prosecutions. He has since been notified of his execution on Aug 5.
Rahim's sister Norhafizah Shapiee, in a letter to the Singapore chief justice, said the prison authorities had refused to provide assistance to the inmates in filing the suit.
"The prisoners had to find out information pertaining to the forms themselves and provide the prison with application forms and e-litigation forms," Norhafizah wrote.
"The prison also did not respond to the prisoners' queries on filing fees."
Vocal anti-death penalty activist Kokila Annamalai meanwhile slammed the barriers before the inmates in their struggle to go through the legal process.
She said only lawyers have access to e-litigation and application forms.
"Prisoners and their families should not have to fight so hard to get access to the courts. It is the duty of the prison authorities and the state to allow and facilitate prisoners’ access to the courts," Kokila said in an online post today.
Singapore is under international scrutiny over a series of executions of those convicted of drug crimes, whose lawyers were slapped with heavy penalties after being accused of "abusing the process".
The rate of the hangings – a total of 10 in just over three months if the scheduled executions go ahead this week – also prompted Amnesty International to urge the international community to step up the pressure against Singapore.
"Rather than having a unique deterrent effect on crime, these executions only show the utter disregard the Singaporean authorities have for human rights and the right to life," the global rights group said on July 22, the day that Nazeri Lajim, a 64-year-old Singaporean who had been addicted to drugs since the age of 14, was executed.
A day earlier, Nazeri, who could not find legal representation amid the climate of fear following the action against lawyers representing death row prisoners, had made a desperate plea to the judges for more time to see his family members before his execution.
Fact aside that many of the prisoners have had to represent themselves, critics also point out that those executed are mostly from poor families, hired as mules by drug kingpins who have largely escaped arrest, an argument that the Singapore courts have rejected.
The PAP-led government has rejected calls for a review of the drug penalty, insisting that it has been effective even as neighbouring Malaysia announced that it was abolishing its mandatory death penalty.
* Editor's note: MalaysiaNow was later alerted to the last-minute addition of another prisoner to the lawsuit, bringing the total number to 24 instead of 23.