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Has the Attorney-General acted in the public interest or good faith by filing an appeal in the case of Gobi a/l Avedian?

by Guo Rendi

The recent case of Gobi a/l Avedian on Thursday (25 Oct), was the second time I heard a death sentence pronounced in open court, within a span of four months. The first was the case of Chia Kee Chen; coincidentally, both death sentences were pronounced in the Court of Appeal, both involved the same coram of judges, and both were cases where the Attorney-General, or the Public Prosecutor, succeeded on the eventual outcome in his appeals.

However, while the AG had acted in the public interest in pushing for the death sentence to be imposed on Chia Kee Chen even on appeal, given that the Court of Appeal had found that Chia had acted in blatant disregard of human life in causing his victim’s death, the AG’s conduct as a whole could not demonstrate the same in the case of Gobi a/l Avedian.

First, it is not unreasonable to infer that, in filing an appeal against the High Court judge’s acquittal of the capital charge in this case, the AG had already manifested its intention not to grant a certificate of substantive assistance to Gobi. This can be seen from the following comparison of potential penalties.

In the High Court, Justice Lee Seiu Kin sentenced Gobi to 15 years of imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane, after careful considerations of precedents and calibration for the reduced charge. The maximum penalty for the same reduced charge, as stated in the Court of Appeal’s judgment, is 20 years of imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane.

On the assumption that AG issued the certificate, once he succeeded in his appeal against the acquittal of the capital charge, in the absence of compelling reasons, the court would most probably sentence Gobi to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. In such a scenario, is there any practical purpose for the AG to appeal, given that it may have been a mere marginal increase in punishment even if he succeeds?

As it turned out, the AG succeeded in its appeal and did not grant a certificate, thus causing Gobi to suffer the death penalty. The disparity between the sentence imposed by the High Court and the death sentence is considerably wide, and therefore justified the appeal being brought from a practical aspect of the AG’s view.

Second, the ostensible reason for the AG’s appeal was that Justice Lee had erred in law in acquitting Gobi of the capital charge, as can be inferred from a reading of paragraphs 34 to 38 in the Court of Appeal’s judgment. While I had some reservations as to the force in the Court of Appeal’s reasoning, bearing in mind a well-established principle that appeal courts should be slow to overturn findings of fact by the trial judge, that is not within the purview of the present article.

The question is, has the AG acted in public interest and good faith in seeking to remedy this error of law at the expense of a human being’s life? In this regard, the public interest element certainly requires the AG to have also considered the facts and circumstances of the case, including the plight and reasons behind the accused committed the offence.

In this case, Gobi transported the drugs into Singapore on instructions, because he needed a large sum of money for his daughter’s operation; before that, he had repeatedly abstained from doing so on numerous occasions. This is really one of the cases most deserving sympathy and compassion, when viewed in light of precedents where the AG had exercised its discretion to reduce a capital drug charge to a non-capital one.

What renders this case so exceptional that the AG insists the full brunt of the law be imposed on Gobi? What makes it different from the precedents where the Prosecution exercised its discretion to save the accused from the death penalty?

Is the public interest being served by pressing on for the ultimate punishment? We may never know.