Halt executions during pandemic

Halt executions during pandemic

In May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Supreme Court of Singapore sentenced a man to death for a drug offence. This has happened countless times before as Singapore is one of the 35 countries that retains the death penalty for drugs. The only difference? This sentencing happened via Zoom.

As human rights groups have pointed out, sentencing someone to death via an impersonal medium such as Zoom makes this already cruel and inhumane punishment even more inhumane. It is also a violation of a person's right to a fair trial, and it puts confidential data at risk. A few months later, the court did this again. I found this deplorable and I am currently representing this person in court.

For the first time since 2013, my home country of Singapore did not carry out any executions last year. This mirrors the trend on the global level. A new report from Harm Reduction International reveals that 2020 saw a record low number of confirmed drug-related executions. Worldwide, 30 people were executed for drug offences last year -- a 74% decrease from the previous year.

Covid-19 has undeniably played a role in the decrease in executions. The pandemic shifted governmental priorities and disrupted judicial proceedings around the world. But it wasn't the main reason for the drop in executions. Political developments, such as a moratorium on drug-related executions in Saudi Arabia, also played an important role. In addition, strategic legal challenges and creative advocacy by lawyers on the ground prevented many executions from happening.

In September 2020, Moad Fadzir Bin Mustaffa, a 42-year-old Singaporean national, was scheduled for execution. Fadzir had been sentenced to the mandatory death penalty for a drug offence. The announcement drew widespread condemnation, including by the European Union. The President of Singapore granted Fadzir a Respite Order just one day before the execution was to take place.

Similarly, Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, who was on death row for a drug offence, was notified that his execution had been scheduled for Sept 18, 2020, despite the fact that Covid-19 travel restrictions would prevent his family in Malaysia from visiting him. Local and international civil society urged authorities to halt the execution and a petition to grant Suhail clemency quickly reached 30,000 signatures, an unprecedented result in Singapore. Roughly 24 hours before the execution, the High Court granted an interim stay, which was then further extended. This case is still ongoing but we remain optimistic.

Another historic judgement was in the case of my client, Gobi Avedian. This was a historic decision, being the first time a "death sentence [was] overturned on a review by the Singapore Court of Appeal after exhausting all the usual avenues of appeal". This authoritative judgement on the concept of "wilful blindness" (central to many drug trafficking cases in Singapore) constitutes a significant precedent which could restrict the imposition of the death penalty for drug trafficking in the country.

Many lawyers refrain from using advocacy strategies outside the court but I have found social media to be an extremely powerful tool. In two separate legal challenges I handled last year, I posted updates about the case on Facebook and garnered thousands of likes and shares in total. In all the cases I had updated, I used #endcrimenotlife to bring more public attention to the cases.

While governments may not have carried out nearly as many executions as in previous years, courts around the world continued to hand out death sentences for drugs at an alarming rate, thereby adding to the ever-increasing number of people on death row people.

As a human rights lawyer, I am cautious of using the reduction in executions as the sole measure of success. True progress must also prevent more death sentences from being imposed in the first place. This can only happen with continued, sustained advocacy, inside and outside of court.

M Ravi is a human rights lawyer based in Singapore. The article coincides with the release today of a report, 'Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2020'.

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