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Mr Eugene Thuraisingam (Photo by Ariffin Sha)

Tribunal: Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam’s Poem was not “a deliberate assault upon judicial integrity”

A tribunal appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has ruled that a poem penned by criminal and human rights lawyer, Eugene Thuraisingam, "is more likely to have been an authorial misstep than a deliberate assault upon judicial integrity."

The tribunal, comprising of Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull and Lawyer Teo Weng Kie elected not to refer Mr Thuraisingam to the Court of Three Judges - the apex disciplinary body to deal with misconduct in the legal profession - and recommended a fine to be imposed on Mr Thuraisingam instead.

The tribunal recommended a fine of no less than $18,000 in April, but the Council of the Law Society ultimately decided to reduce the quantum of the fine from $18,000 to $5,000. The tribunal reasoned that the meaning of the poem would not have altered significantly if the reference to the judiciary had been removed.

The poem in question was published by Mr Thuraisingam on 19 May 2017. It was published few hours prior to the execution of his client, Ridzuan Bin Md Ali. On 29 May 2017, the Attorney General's Chambers ("AGC") requested the Law Society to refer Mr Thuraisingam to a disciplinary tribunal.

"Our five stars dim tonight.
Our son will be no more.
Killed at the hands of strangers.
At the orders of those who do not care.

Our five stars dim tonight.
For a cruel and unjust law.
The fate of a life, in the hands of one.
Who himself doesn't really care.

Our five stars dim tonight.
With our million dollar men turned blind. 
Pretending not to see.
Ministers, Judges and Lawyers. 
Same as the accumulators of wealth.
Hiding in the dimness, like rats scavenging for scraps.
When does the new car come?

Our five stars dim tonight.
For a law that makes no sense.
A law that is cruel and unjust.
Just as its makers, executors stand.
Jeffrey has died. Ridzuan is next.
Killed not in our names, but by the decree of one.

Fear not my friend, we tread through this darkness.
The sons of this soil have spoken.
Regardless of race. Regardless of language. Regardless of religion.
As our lungs shout as one, the stars will shine again!

The people have spoken."

On 7 August 2017, the portions of the poem that are in bold underline were held to be in contempt of court by Justice See Kee Oon. Mr Thuraisingam was fined for the poem that "scandalised the judiciary." During that hearing, the AGC had submitted that the Court should impose a fine of $10,000 on Mr Thuraisingam.

Senior Counsel Ang Cheng Hock, who represented Mr Thuraisingam, highlighted Mr Thuraisingam's long and unblemished record before the Courts and his public service in his submissions. Ultimately, a fine of $6,000 was imposed on Mr Thuraisingam by the High Court. In addition to the fine imposed by the Law Society, this brings the total quantum of fines faced by Mr Thuraisingam in relation to the poem to $11,000.

In its report, the 2-men tribunal concluded that the "most compelling" point of mitigation were his efforts to remedy and apologise for the contempt.

Mr Thuraisingam publicly apologised for the poem on 5 June 2018 on his own accord.

Mr Thuraisingam has provided pro-bono legal services to accused persons for more than 17 years under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme ("CLAS"). He has also volunteered with the Legal Assistance for Capital Offences ("LASCO"), a scheme that was "the closest to his heart."

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (left) presenting the LASCO Award to Mr Eugene Thuraisingam (right). TNP PHOTO: OH XING YEE

Over the past six years, he has handled no less than 17 cases where his clients faced the death penalty. Ridzuan, the subject of the poem, was also one of Mr Thuraisingam's clients. Mr Thuraisingam, in his affidavit, explained that the anguish he faced after walking away from his last meeting with Ridzuan led to him publishing the poem.

"One of the most heart wrenching things that I have ever had to do in my 16 years of practice is to walk away from my clients at my final meeting with them after explaining that there is nothing more than can be done in Court to save lives.

I was extremely upset on the night of Ridzuan's execution. I was demoralized that there was nothing further I could do for him as his lawyer. He was young and there was so much more that he could have done with his life. Yet, because of mistakes committed in the folly of his youth, he was set to be executed.

I was not in the right frame of mind when I published the Facebook post." - Mr Thuraisingam in his affidavit.

Mr Thuraisingam was awarded the LASCO Award in 2016 for his work and a Silver Medal by the Law Society Pro-Bono Services Office in appreciation for his dedication to CLAS. Over the years, he has also argued in a number of high-profile cases of significant public interest. In 2014, he represented Roy Ngerng when he was the subject of a defamation suit by PM Lee Hsien Loong. He also represented The Online Citizen when we were sued by the Ministry of Defence for alleged harassment. He acted for the family of the late Dinesh Raman in relation to his death in police custody. He currently represents the applicant in a constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code.