The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today joined the chorus of criticism over Singapore's use of the death penalty for drug offences as well as the penalties slapped against lawyers representing death row inmates, saying the punitive cost orders have obstructed prisoners' access to justice and their right to a fair trial and life itself.
The Geneva-based ICJ, comprising senior judges, attorneys and academics, urged the city-state to put an immediate halt to any impending executions and to cease its imposition of penalties against lawyers.
"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," ICJ commissioner Ambiga Sreenevasan added.
The ICJ statement comes days after Singapore executed another two prisoners – Abdul Rahim Shapiee and Ong Seow Ping – on Aug 5, taking the number of inmates executed in the island republic to 10 in just four months.
Rahim had been one of 24 prisoners who filed a suit against the government over their inability to seek the service of lawyers in the wake of heavy penalties slapped on those representing death row inmates.
The suit was thrown out by a Singapore court on Aug 3, a day after the prisoners were told to submit elaborate paperwork in support of their case despite their lack of counsel.
The lack of lawyers willing to represent them had seen many of the inmates who were executed in past months forced to defend themselves in their final appeals.
In the case of Malaysian Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who was hanged on April 27, his mother appeared in court to represent him as she was unable to find a lawyer willing to do so.
The ICJ said the courts in Singapore had imposed punitive cost orders against the lawyers of death row inmates as they had filed late-stage applications on behalf of their clients, "purportedly on the basis that these applications were 'frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process'".
Citing one such ruling by the Singapore High Court on June 23, it said this holding was based on "an overly expansive and impermissible interpretation of what constitutes 'lack of merit' or 'abuse of process'".
"Imposing punitive cost orders based on overbroad and impermissible readings of 'lack of merit' or 'abuse of 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," it said.
Adding that the ICJ opposed the death penalty under any circumstances, it said international law and standards on the use of the death penalty are clear that it should never be imposed in a conviction for drug offences.
"Such offences... do not involve 'intentional killing', the international law threshold for capital crimes," it added.
Other international bodies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations' Human Rights Office have also joined the growing criticism from activists and lawyers campaigning to end the death penalty.
"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," Amnesty said on July 22.
The Singapore government has scoffed at those who question its death penalty for drug offences, despite statistics showing that most individuals hired to courier drugs are from poor families.
Instead, the PAP-led regime insists that the death penalty has been a deterrent to drug crimes.