Apex court throws out suit by 24 death row inmates alleging right to counsel violated

The 24 inmates were led at the Court of Appeal hearing by Iskandar Rahmat, a former policeman sentenced to death for the 2013 Kovan double murder. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - In an unprecedented overnight ruling, the Court of Appeal in the early hours on Friday (Aug 5) threw out a suit brought against the Attorney-General by 24 prisoners on death row alleging that their right to access to justice had been violated.

One inmate, Abdul Rahim Shapiee, 45, who also brought a separate suit, failed in his last-minute bid to get a stay of his execution.

The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justices Tay Yong Kwang and Woo Bih Li, delivered its judgment at about midnight, having deliberated for some seven hours after hearing arguments on Thursday afternoon.

In a statement on Friday night, the Central Narcotics Bureau said the executions of Abdul Rahim and a co-accused, Ong Seow Ping, 49, were carried out that day.

The two men were jointly tried and convicted in March 2018 of different heroin trafficking charges. Ong was not involved in the current proceedings.

The 24 inmates were led by Iskandar Rahmat, the former policeman sentenced to death for the 2013 Kovan double murder.

On Monday (Aug 1), they filed a civil claim against the Attorney-General, alleging that provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code which empower the courts to impose costs against defence counsel were unconstitutional.

The inmates claimed that such costs orders "obstructed" them from appointing lawyers to make legal challenges against their convictions and sentences.

On Wednesday (Aug 3), High Court judge See Kee Oon struck out the claim for being "plainly unsustainable".

The inmates then appealed.

In the appeal hearing held via video conference on Thursday afternoon, Iskandar argued that lawyers were unwilling to represent them because they feared being ordered to pay costs personally.

Iskandar also asked the Court of Appeal for more time to gather evidence to support their case.

The apex court dismissed the appeal.

Former policeman Iskandar Rahmat is on death row for the 2013 Kovan double murder. PHOTO: ST FILE

In a 30-page judgment delivered by Chief Justice Menon, the court said the provisions cannot reasonably deter lawyers from acting in bona fide applications or appeals for death row inmates.

Past court rulings have set out that costs orders can only imposed if the proceedings are brought or conducted with some impropriety, such as where they are frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process.

"In other words, the true scope of the CPC cost provisions does not impinge on one's right of access to justice or right to counsel at all, simply because there is and can be no right to advance a position in court improperly," he said.

As for Abdul Rahim, he had sought a stay of execution pending the resolution of an 11th hour negligence suit he filed against his former lawyer on Wednesday.

He claimed that the lawyer who was assigned to defend him during his trial had failed to follow his instructions to call a certain witness.

But Chief Justice Menon said this claim was without merit and an abuse of process.

He noted that the lawsuit was filed five days after Abdul Rahim was notified of his execution.

The Chief Justice noted that Abdul Rahim had not raised this issue during his appeal in March 2020, when he was represented by a different lawyer.

"He did not take any step to act on this until literally days before the sentence was to be carried out."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.