Note: The author of this piece is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances.
In pushing Singapore to take baby steps away from the death penalty, one aspect of the criminal justice system in need of reform could be the clemency process, said anti-capital punishment campaigner M Ravi at a film screening and discussion organised for the World Day Against the Death Penalty on Saturday.
In Singapore, pardons are granted by the President, who is the elected head of state of the country. However the court ruled in 2011 that the President has to act on the advice of the Cabinet when it comes to clemency cases, effectively handing the power to the government that has not only kept capital punishment on the books, but actively defended its continued use.
M Ravi, a human rights lawyer whose licence to practise is currently suspended, pointed out that former president S R Nathan had not granted any clemencies during his two six-year terms as head-of-state. In fact, since Singapore’s independence in 1965, less than ten clemencies have been granted. The last clemency was granted by Ong Teng Cheong in 1998.
“Clemency is not taken seriously here,” Ravi said, arguing that this process is especially important because of the use of the mandatory death penalty, which leaves judges with no discretion in sentencing.
“The clemency process is meant to mitigate the harshness of the mandatory death penalty,” he added.
It is important, Ravi argued, to “separate the layers” and remove the power of granting pardons from politicians, giving the an independent head-of-state full discretion. “It is when the legal process ends that the act of mercy begins,” he said.
Even Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia – who also has the death penalty for drug trafficking on the books – has a pardons board to decide on whether a particular offender deserves clemency. In June this year, the board commuted the death sentence of a Filipino woman convicted of smuggling cocaine following clemency pleas from both her family and the Philippine embassy.
Ravi also raised the question of dissenting judgements – in 2006, Took Leng How’s death sentence was confirmed by the Court of Appeal despite a dissenting judge. More recently, Sarawakian Kho Jabing’s death sentence was upheld even though two out of the five judges on the bench dissented.
“How do you reconcile ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ with dissenting judgements,” Ravi asked, referring to the standard to which convictions should be held.
Organised by the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) and We Believe in Second Chances, the discussion took place following a screening of documentarian Werner Herzog’s 2011 film Into The Abyss, which looks at the case of a 2001 triple-homicide in Texas involving two teenage boys.