Apex court allows death-row inmate to argue case over schedule of executions

Syed Suhail Syed Zin was sentenced to death on Dec 2, 2015, for trafficking 38.84g of heroin.
Syed Suhail Syed Zin was sentenced to death on Dec 2, 2015, for trafficking 38.84g of heroin.

The Court of Appeal yesterday gave the green light for Singaporean heroin trafficker Syed Suhail Syed Zin, 44, to argue his case that death-row inmates are not being treated equally in the scheduling of executions.

Suhail is seeking a judicial review of the Singapore Prison Service's (SPS) decision to carry out his death sentence before that of others who were convicted before him. He contends that is a violation of his right to equality under the Constitution.

The apex court's decision to grant permission for judicial review came after Suhail's lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, cited Malaysian drug trafficker Datchinamurthy Kataiah as an example. Datchinamurthy was given the death sentence before Suhail in 2015 but Suhail was scheduled to be hanged before Datchinamurthy.

Mr Ravi also pointed out that Datchinamurthy's inmate number is 944, while Suhail's is 949, to support his case about the sequence in which they were put on death row.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, giving the decision of the three-judge apex court, said that on the face of it, there is an inconsistency between the known facts and an assertion contained in an affidavit submitted to the court by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Based on this inconsistency, the threshold to grant permission for judicial review has been crossed, he said.

The affidavit states that "when the 18 September 2020 date was scheduled for the execution of the appellant's sentence, the appellant was the earliest to have been sentenced to death among all offenders in the same position as he was at the point of scheduling".

The court did not allow a bid by Senior Counsel Francis Ng from the Attorney-General's Chambers to submit further evidence, at this stage, to explain the circumstances of Datchinamurthy's case.

Mr Ng said the MHA affidavit had been prepared to address questions raised by the apex court at the previous hearing on Sept 22. "We apologise if we understood the questions wrongly; we read them as referring to general terms," he said.

The court, which also comprised Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, gave directions for the matter to be dealt with in the High Court expeditiously.

Suhail was sentenced to death by the High Court on Dec 2, 2015, for trafficking 38.84g of heroin.

His appeal was dismissed on Oct 18, 2018. On July 5 last year, Suhail was told that his petition for clemency had been rejected. On Sept 11 this year, he was told that he would be hanged on Sept 18.

Mr Ravi applied for permission from the court for judicial review of the SPS decision on the scheduling of his execution. The application was dismissed by the High Court on Sept 17 but Suhail's execution was stayed pending the appeal.

Yesterday, the Chief Justice said he accepted that the State has a measure of flexibility in scheduling executions, which he noted cannot be effected in a way that is "entirely mathematical". But he said that flexibility has to be exercised in a way that is rational and fair.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2020, with the headline 'Apex court allows death-row inmate to argue case over schedule of executions'. Print Edition | Subscribe