Execution of drug trafficker on hold after Court of Appeal orders further submissions

Syed Suhail Syed Zin, who was granted a stay of execution from the death penalty on 22 September 2020. (PHOTO: Facebook)
Syed Suhail Syed Zin, who was granted a stay of execution from the death penalty on 22 September 2020. (PHOTO: Facebook)

SINGAPORE — The Court of Appeal has called on Tuesday (22 September) for further submissions to be made in the case of a convicted drug trafficker, based on allegations about differential treatment as well as a breach of client-solicitor privilege.

Syed Suhail Syed Zin, 44, has also been granted a stay of execution by the Singapore High Court, as he was originally scheduled to be executed last Friday.

He had earlier filed an application to the High Court for permission to commence judicial review proceedings against the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), to stay the execution of his sentence.

The application was dismissed by Justice See Kee Oon last Thursday, and the appeal was heard by the Court of Appeal on Tuesday. Parties have been directed to file further submissions, and will return to the Court of Appeal on a date to be fixed after 6 October.

Syed Suhail was arrested in 2011 and convicted in December 2015 of a capital charge of possessing at least 38.8 grams of diamorphine or heroin for trafficking. The Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal in October 2018.

Allegations of differential treatment in judicial execution

During Tuesday’s hearing, defence lawyer M Ravi alleged that differential treatment has been applied between foreigners and Singaporeans in the scheduling of Syed Suhail’s judicial execution.

He contended that executions are not being carried out in the same order that the death sentences were meted out, saying that his client was scheduled to be hanged ahead of those who were sentenced before him.

He argued that this violates Syed Suhail’s Constitutional right to equal treatment under Article 12, as differential treatment has been applied between foreigners and Singaporeans in the scheduling of his judicial execution.

In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a media release on Tuesday that it denies all allegations of discrimination or impropriety in the scheduling of judicial executions.

“All prisoners sentenced to capital punishment are accorded due process according to the law. A judicial execution will only be scheduled after an inmate has exhausted all legal channels for appeal and clemency, regardless of whether the prisoner is a Singaporean or a foreigner,” the ministry said.

MHA added that it will address the “baseless” allegations comprehensively before the next hearing date.

During the Court of Appeal hearing, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Francis Ng slammed the allegations, saying they were “of a most serious and scandalous nature” being used to denigrate the head of state. He also called Ravi's applications “frivolous and vexatious”.

After hearing arguments from both sides, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, along with appeal judges Judith Prakash and Andrew Phang, ordered parties to file submissions on three points.

First, whether a prisoner awaiting capital punishment has a legitimate expectation that the date on which his punishment is carried out will not result in his being treated differently from other prisoners who are similarly situated.

Second, does the answer to the first question differ if prisoners who are Singaporean are treated differently from those who are not citizens. And third, if there are considerations in respect of the second question that could justify differential treatment. This is in relation to Article 12, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the law to all persons.

Allegation of breach of client-solicitor privilege

The Court of Appeal also heard allegations by Ravi about a breach of client-solicitor privilege, with the lawyer saying that the SPS had given private letters from his client to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) in 2018. He wanted the entire AGC team to be disqualified, as it had read privileged communications by Syed to his then-lawyer and to his uncle.

The alleged breach was raised on Monday by human rights coalition Community Action Network, who called it “deeply alarming”.

In response, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Ng said that the AGC “came into possession of the letters” in the course of preparing documents related to the discharge of Syed's then-lawyer Ramesh Tiwary.

“The letters were not used in AGC's response,” said Ng, adding that he had not personally seen any of the letters.

The SPS also clarified the circumstances surrounding the letter, saying that there was “no legal prohibition” against extending letters written by a convicted drug trafficker to AGC.

“During a hearing before the Court of Appeal on 3 May 2018, Syed Suhail informed the Court that he wished to introduce evidence from his uncle for the purposes of the appeal, having given the Court various reasons during the trial for not calling his uncle as a defence witness,” it said in a media release.

“The hearing was then adjourned for parties to look into this request and the Court of Appeal allowed the AGC to file a response if it thought that Syed Suhail was abusing the process of the Court.

“In the preparation of its response, AGC approached SPS to check whether Syed Suhail had expressed any prior intention to call his uncle as a witness. SPS’s checks revealed that Syed Suhail had informed the Superintendent of his intention to call his uncle as a defence witness. He had also written four letters to his uncle.

“In this context, SPS extended a copy of these letters, and one letter to his then-counsel, to the AGC on 10 May 2018 and 7 June 2018. At that time, there was no legal prohibition in the Prisons Act or Regulations against doing so.”

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