Vignes Mourthi – seven years on

Andrew Loh

When the tears fell from her eyes, it broke my heart – and that of those who had come to pay her and her family a visit. Everyone was silent. Even I, who was interviewing her, could not bear to ask her the next question.

In all four years of being involved with The Online Citizen, I had never felt or experienced such pain up close.

I had not followed Vignes Mourthi’s trial back in 2003. I did not even know who he was. It was only seven years later that I started to read about him – how he was caught outside a mosque in Singapore, and how the family had sought help from the late Mr JB Jeyaretnam, who brought Mr M Ravi into the case.

Vignes had been convicted of trafficking 27.65g of heroin into Singapore in 2003. Accordingly, he was sentenced to the mandatory death penalty, as prescribed under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act.

Vignes, a Malaysian, was 23 when he was hanged.

Earlier this year when we – Vignes’s lawyer Mr M Ravi, Joshua Chiang and I – visited his family in Malaysia, I didn’t know what to expect. At the back of my mind, I kept wondering what I would say, or whether it was right for us to inquire – nah, intrude – into a family’s grief.

As the car pulls up to the house, I notice the number of motorcycles parked in the driveway. I later learned the family needed to use them when they go to work in the plantation, which was some ways away.

Mr Mourthi Vasu, Vignes’s father, is an energetic man, shaking our hands with some vigour as he welcomes us into his home.  The family had prepared lunch for us, for which we were late, having been delayed because we could not find the family’s house. Two of Vignes’s three sisters had to come to guide us on our way.

“I am still not satisfied because I want my son back,” Mr Mourthi says when I ask him if he has accepted the execution and death of Vignes, his only son. “He is an innocent boy! Why you want to hang my son?” he added.

Mr Mourthi describes what had happened after Vignes was hanged. The Singapore Prison Service [SPS] had given the family two photos of Vignes – taken by the prison, a day before Vignes was executed. “They told me to buy the shirt, the shoes, trousers, everything.. I give [them to Vignes], then they take the photos and [gave the photos to me],” Mr Mourthi said as he showed me the two pictures of Vignes seated in a chair. Each picture had him in a different set of attire.

“Did they [the SPS]tell you why they gave you these pictures? Or what the pictures were for?” I ask.

Mr Mourthi shakes his head.

“And when you saw these pictures, how did you feel?”

“I was crying,” he replies.  “I was crying.”

“I gave the pictures to my wife… [she was also]crying.. all crying..”

In an adjacent open space to the kitchen stands an altar, a small space dedicated to Vignes, with a photo of him and offerings the family makes everyday.

“Vignes is always in my heart,” says his elder sister, Kohidam. “I’ve never forgotten about him. Wherever my family goes, Vignes is with us.”

She and her younger sister Shankari were the first to see Vignes’s body after his death. The two sisters had gone to Changi Prison at about 11am the day after the execution, after having been stopped at the customs checkpoint by Singapore immigration officers when they were entering Singapore at 8am. The sisters were told that there were problems with their passports. After some three hours, they were allowed into Singapore.

When they finally arrived at Changi Prison, Vignes’s body was in a box.  Some flowers had also been placed in it, apparently by prison guards of Changi. This provided some comfort to the sisters, although they were also told that they could not touch Vignes’s body then.

“I [felt like dying],” Shankari says when I asked how she felt when she first saw Vignes’s body. “I [had to]cry.”

They were then told that they had to take Vignes’s body away by 2pm that day, otherwise the prison would cremate his body. Knowing virtually no one in Singapore and not knowing where or how to make the necessary arrangements for the embalmment and the funeral, the sisters asked the prison service to give them more time. But this was rejected.

It was only when Vignes’s lawyer, M Ravi, intervened that the problem was resolved and Vignes’s family was able to plan a proper funeral for him.

“Do you miss your brother today?” I ask Shankari.

“I miss….” she says, unable to complete her sentence, as she wipes her tears.

Vignes now lies in a grave beside a frangipani tree, about a 15-minute walk from the family home. Sitting atop the tombstone are statues of two tigers. “Vignes loved these,” Mr Mourthi tells us. “So, I put them here.”

The headstone says simply: “Vignes s/o Mourthi. Born 21-3-1980. Departed 26-9-2003.”

Executions in Singapore are one of those things which are seldom talked about. The Government and the media do not provide many details about them. We do not even know how many people are executed or when these hangings take place, although it is believed they happen on Fridays, at dawn.

All we get are vague statistics, and never have the aftermath of these cases and those most affected by them, been told.

While we continue to defy international consensus where most countries have either abolished or are considering the abolition of the death penalty, we risk taking the lives of innocent men and women.

We have also hanged those as young as 18.

The Misuse of Drugs Act provides mandatory death for those convicted of drug trafficking. Our esteemed judges, selected and appointed for their vast experience, are deemed unable or incapable of meting out alternative sentences.

There are many flaws in our implementation of the mandatory death penalty which have been highlighted by politicians, lawyers, the Law Society of Singapore, academics, ordinary Singaporeans and the international community, including rights groups and most notably Amnesty International.

Yet, the Singapore Government has turned a blind eye and prefers to cover its ears to the exhortations to re-look the mandatory death penalty.

During Vignes’s trial, one Sergeant Rajkumar, who was also the investigating officer who arrested Vignes, was the prosecution’s key witness. However, Rajkumar was himself being investigated by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for rape, sodomy and bribery at the same time the trial of Vignes was taking place. This was not disclosed to Vignes’s lawyers.

Rajkumar’s own trial took place after Vignes had been hanged.

Rajkumar was eventually found guilty of bribery and sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Vignes Mourthi denied, till his last breath, that he had trafficked drugs. Moorthy Angappan, a family friend, was a dealer in incense stones back in Malaysia. It was Angappan who had asked Vignes to carry the drugs, which were packed as incense stones, to Singapore and to hand them over to a friend.

On the day of his final appeal, which was struck down by the court, Vignes had stood up in court and said that he was prepared to die.

He only wanted to know why.

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Note: Vignes’s story is told in more detail in “Hung At Dawn”, a book by his lawyer, M Ravi. It is available in the bookstores.

In August 2010, Mr Mourthi Vasu, together with Malaysian rights lawyers, issued a memorandum of protest at the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. (See video below and our report here.)

Support our call for a moratorium on the Mandatory Death Penalty. Click here.

Interview with Vignes’s family.

Mourthi Vasu at Singapore High Comm in KL

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