SINGAPORE: ‘Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost’

RaviCIVICUS speaks with constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate M. Ravi about civic space, human rights and his activism against the death penalty in Singapore.

A prominent anti-death penalty advocate, Ravi is a founding member of the Anti‐Death Penalty Asia Network and the Singapore Anti‐Death Penalty Campaign community group. Due to his work, he has faced harassment from the Singaporean authorities.

Over the past few years, Ravi has also worked on business and human rights, sustainability and environmental, social and governance issues. He is a founding member of the Malaysian Association of Public Advocacy for Nature.

What is the current state of civic space in Singapore?

Civic space is highly restricted as a result of the repressive measures taken by the government, which has curtailed freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly for years. The authoritarian ‘rule by law’ has reached a toxic state in which the average Singaporean feels terribly alienated. The upside of this is the growth of an opposition force determined to remove the ruling People’s Action Party from power.

How did you start working on death penalty cases?

In 2003, I was instructed in a last-ditch attempt by the family of a young Malaysian death row inmate, Vignes Mourthy, to save him from execution. The case came to me through JB Jeyaretnam, a leading opposition politician at the time. I faced procedural hurdles against reopening the case, and on the eve of the execution I asked Chief Justice Yong Pung How whether an innocent man can be hanged due to procedural reasons, to which he responded that he could. That response shook my conscience, so I started campaigning against the death penalty. I founded an organisation, the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, to support the families of death row inmates and ultimately end the death penalty.

What challenges have you faced?

I took up a number of human rights constitutional cases and death penalty cases on a pro bono basis. The demanding nature of the work and the emotional aspect of death penalty cases also affected my wellbeing. Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost.

This work has also been highly taxing on my resources. The Attorney General has filed several complaints with the Law Society and I have been prosecuted as a result. The courts slammed me with adverse personal cost orders to the tune of S$70,000 (US$ 52, 661) in my representation of death penalty cases. I had to raise funds to settle.

A complaint that the Law Society lodged against me with the Court of Appeal in a death penalty case is now before a Disciplinary Tribunal. I have recently been suspended for five years for criticising the conduct of the prosecution of another Malaysian citizen, Gobi Avedian, who would have been executed if not for my late-stage application, in response to which the Court of Appeal acknowledged that there had been a miscarriage of justice. But for my advocacy for Gobi, I paid a huge price in the form of a five-year suspension.

I have been often subjected to intimidation and state harassment. I have recently been investigated by the police over Facebook posts in relation to campaigns on death penalty cases as constituting contempt of court.


How has this impacted on your work?

All these repressive moves have greatly impeded my work. Lawyers in Singapore are cowed into passivity and fear, contributing to a weak legal profession. This has deprived me of the support of my peers and only increased my vulnerability. Fortunately, I have received a great deal of support from my international network of lawyers and civil society activists.

In 2020 and 2021 I was handling almost all death row cases. I represented 26 inmates at one go and most of this work was pro bono. But the personal cost orders against me had a chilling effect on the profession: lawyers were increasingly unwilling to get involved in late-stage applications for fear of state reprisals. After my suspension, 24 inmates I represented filed an application in court and appeared on their own, as they had no lawyers to argue their cases. Some of them have already been executed. My suspension has deprived them of a voice in court. Fear is crippling the legal profession.

Has any progress been made towards the end of the death penalty?

There has been progress. As a result of the various legal challenges, I and others brought to court in the case of Yong Vui Kong, another young Malaysian on death row, between 2010 and 2012 an indirect moratorium was placed on death penalty cases. This contributed to the amendment to the law in respect of the mandatory death penalty, giving judges discretion in death penalty cases. Yong was saved from the death penalty, along with two of my clients and several others.

The vigorous campaign held across Malaysia to save Yong also precipitated a call for reform of death penalty laws in Malaysia. Executions were also halted, culminating in the recent abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia. A recent campaign and legal challenges to save another client of mine, Nagenthren, from being executed further strengthened calls by civil society, media, lawyers, politicians and others to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

What can civil society and the international community do to support human rights activists in Singapore?

They can issue solidarity statements and bring the human rights violations levelled against human rights activists to the United Nations and other international bodies. It is time for such cases to be brought to international courts or to the national courts of states such as France and the USA, which have universal jurisdiction. For example, the USA’s Alien Tort Statute gives US federal courts jurisdiction over certain international human rights law violations that occurred on foreign soil and plaintiffs affected can file a claim against a foreign country in the USA. This means that Singapore can be sued in countries which has universal jurisdiction laws for its egregious human rights violations in death penalty cases.

Civic space in Singapore is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @MRavilaw on Twitter.



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