SINGAPORE— Human rights lawyer M Ravi has urged Singaporeans to speak out against the execution of Tangaraju Suppiah, a Singaporean convicted and sentenced to death in October 2018 for abetting by conspiracy to traffic 1,017.9g of cannabis.
Tangaraju, aged 46, is set to be hanged on Wednesday (26 Apr), according to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) of Singapore.
Mr Ravi, who previously represented Tangaraju, has highlighted several concerning aspects of the case, including Tangaraju’s lack of access to an interpreter and legal counsel during his trial.
“The troubling features about his case that I would like to talk to you about, is that he says that he had no access to an interpreter because he asked for an interpreter and he was denied one, and his statements were taken without an interpreter. ”
Low income group face a high risk of conviction in death penalty system
In his latest live video on Facebook, Mr Ravi further noted that Tangaraju did not have access to counsel when his statements were taken.
“Although you have a right to counsel in Singapore, your right to access to counsel or to a lawyer can be denied for about three of two or three weeks.”
“So therefore, people like Tangaraju and those who are facing death penalty, essentially many of them who come from low-income group, who are vulnerable, who are low educated like Tangaraju, do face a high risk of execution or face the high risk of conviction in this death penalty system.”
Another troubling aspect of Tangaraju’s case, as noted by Ravi, is that he was not caught with the drugs.
“His co-accused person, was who was caught with the drugs, his charge was reduced from a capital charge to a non-capital one. His charge was reduced to “him carrying 499.9 grams of cannabis”, in which 500 grams being the legal limit that will attract the death penalty.”
“He (Tangaraju) was not even carrying drugs. His other co-accused, three other co-accused, were given discharge, not amounting to an acquittal.”
Mr Ravi went on to suggest that Tangaraju’s case was indicative of broader issues within Singapore’s legal system, with lawyers unwilling to take on cases that risk disciplinary action or cost orders.
Tangaraju represented himself as no lawyers is willing to take up his case
He added that Tangaraju had represented himself recently in court. His sister, Leela had sought legal representation, but lawyers are not willing to take up his case.
“Last night (on Sunday), I spoke to a lawyer who said that he is he will be he would be willing to take up his case. And he said that there are reasonable grounds to reopen his case, but he said that he is afraid that he will face cost orders and also disciplinary actions.”
The prospect is real because Mr Ravi himself had already gone through that, being faced with $70,000 personal court orders from various complaints filed against him over late applications in various death penalty cases.
“So lawyers, when they are frightened to take up the cases, it brings a disrepute to the entire profession because we have taken an oath to advance fearless advocacy on behalf of our client. ”
“Secondly, the system is broken without legal representation for persons like Tangaraju, ” Mr Ravi added.
“It’s akin to imagine a hospital, an ICU unit. When someone’s life is at stake. You bring that person to an ICU unit and there are no doctors who are willing to take up the case because they are frightened to even inspect him.”
Calls on Singaporean society to speak out against the execution
In his video, Mr Ravi called on the Singaporean society to speak out against the execution, arguing that it was incumbent on all citizens to stand together to end the practice of the death penalty.
“Even if you are for the death penalty, you cannot allow a person like Tangaraju to be executed, because there is a fundamental defect in our legal system. ”
He reiterated that death penalty does not deter crimes as there’s been there have been quite conclusive research internationally done on this.
“This execution does not bring any closure. This execution is so meaningless because death penalty does not deter drug trafficking. ”
“If you can’t find the mastermind, you cannot find the solution. If you cannot find the solution, it’s meaningless to hang the mules. It’s meaningless to hang low level criminals. ”
He said the country needs a better solution, like what Malaysia has recently done to abolish the mandatory death penalty and call for reforms.
“You cannot take a person’s life, because death is irreversible and we need to have proper safeguards, if at all you want to deprive someone of his life.”
Mr Ravi called on fellow Singaporeans to write to their MPs or the ministers, even write to the Prime Minister to stop the execution.
Tangaraju s/o Suppiah is a 46-year-old Singaporean. He was convicted and sentenced to death in October 2018 for abetting by conspiracy to traffic 1,017.9g of cannabis.
Tangaraju never touched the cannabis he is accused of attempting to traffic. The case against him is largely circumstantial and based on inferences. He was tied to the offence by two phone numbers found on the mobile phones of two men arrested by the Central Narcotics Bureau, one of which had been used to coordinate the cannabis delivery.
However, Tangaraju was already in remand for a separate offence by the time he was linked to this case, and the mobile phones were never recovered for analysis.
Tangaraju also denied having asked one of the suspects to collect drugs or having arranged to meet somebody to collect drugs. The court did not examine whether Tangaraju had the financial ability to purchase 1kg of cannabis for trafficking.
Aspects of the investigation also raise serious concerns of due process and fairness. As is standard practice in Singapore, Tangaraju was interrogated by the police without being accompanied by legal counsel.
Furthermore, his requests for a Tamil interpreter during the recording of his statement were denied. He said that he had trouble properly understanding the investigating officer’s questions, or the recorded statement when it was read back to him. For the trial, witness statements and phone records were also not disclosed to Tangaraju’s defence.
Tangaraju’s supposed co-conspirator, Mogan Valo, was the one arrested in possession of the cannabis. He pleaded guilty to a non-capital offence of possession for the purposes of trafficking 499.99g of cannabis (just 0.01g below the 500g threshold for the mandatory death penalty for trafficking cannabis). Others involved in the offence were given discharges not amounting to acquittal.
Tangaraju filed an application at the end of 2022 seeking a review of his case. Despite his family’s best efforts, they were unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him. Tangaraju was left to self-represent, and his application was dismissed summarily at the beginning of this year.