24 death row prisoners file historic suit claiming they have been denied access to justice, despite prison placing barriers
One of them is Abdul Rahim bin Shapiee, who is scheduled for execution this Friday, 5 August 2022
Update at 10.15AM on 2 August 2022: An earlier version of this article said 23 prisoners brought the suit, but as it turns out, one prisoner was added at the last minute, bringing the total to 24.
Note: The prisoners have clarified that while they received the documents from their family on Monday, 25 July, and were directed by their family to file them immediately, it took them till Thursday, 28 July, to try to file it. But this was still before Rahim got his execution notice on Friday, 29 July.
On Monday, 25 July 2022, 17 death row prisoners - all unrepresented - tried to file a civil case in the High Court of Singapore through the prison registry, detailing the barriers they have faced in appointing lawyers to help them. The main thrust of their case is that the fear of cost orders that lawyers face when filing late-stage applications has prevented lawyers from assisting them, thereby undermining their constitutional right to access justice. The third plaintiff named in the papers the prisoners tried to submit was Abdul Rahim bin Shapiee, whose execution notice arrived four days later, on Friday, 29 July.
To their shock and surprise, the prison told the prisoners that they don’t know what form to use to file the case, and that they have to find out this information by themselves. They were also told to produce e-litigation forms and application forms, which only lawyers have access to. As death row prisoners representing themselves, there is no way the prisoners would have been able to provide these. Further, when the prisoners asked how much the filing fees would be, the prison did not give them the information.
Today, 1 August 2022, one week and plenty of struggle later - with support from their families and friends - the prisoners finally managed to file the historic application, shortly before 1pm. Over the past week since the prison first failed to file their application, 7 more prisoners joined the case, bringing the total to 24. This is likely the first time that so many prisoners - and death row prisoners, in particular - have come together to sue the Government of Singapore and the Attorney-General.
The prisoners were only able to file the suit because over the past week, their family members kept urging them to try and explained to them that the prison was placing unreasonable barriers in their way. Prisoners and their families should not have to fight so hard to get access to the courts. It is the duty of the prison authorities and the State to allow and facilitate prisoners’ access to the courts.
In addition to the application they filed today, the prisoners also submitted a complaint letter to the Supreme Court about the obstacles the prison placed in their way, preventing them from filing their case on the day they intended to.
Rahim’s sister, Fizah, also went in person to the Supreme Court this afternoon to submit this complaint letter (images below) to Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and to the Registrar of the Supreme Court, on behalf of the prisoners’ families. She rushed down after her morning visit with Rahim, forgoing her afternoon visit, because she wants the Chief Justice to know that her brother tried to file a case four days before his execution notice arrived, and she is worried that now, since his execution notice came, it may be too late for her brother to see the case through.
In her letter, which was accepted by the Correspondence Clearance Centre at around 3pm, she says:
“As a result of the prison’s actions, their urgent application was not filed on Monday 25 July as they had intended. A few days after that, on Friday 29 July 2022, my brother was given a notice of execution for next Friday 5 August 2022. As his sister, I worry that the prison was aware on Monday 25 July of his scheduled execution, even though notice had not been given to him yet, and therefore blocked his application. My brother also informed me that prison wardens seemed to be aware of his execution and told him to 'take care' days before the execution notice was given to us. He said it was unusual for them to tell him to ‘take care’, and it made sense to him only after he was informed of his execution.”
She ends the letter with:
“My brother has the right to access the courts, and the justice system, for as long as he is alive. This right cannot be denied to him in the days leading up to his execution.”
This is not the first time the prison has placed barriers in the path of death row prisoners trying to access the courts at a late stage. In 2019, Malaysian death row prisoner Pannir Selvam’s sisters rushed to help him file a stay of execution, when no lawyer was willing to come forward to assist him. They had trouble passing the legal documents to Pannir through the prison, and at the 11th hour, the prison even tried to refuse Pannir a meeting with a Commissioner for Oaths, claiming that there were no meeting rooms available at the prison for Pannir to meet with the Commissioner.
Just last month, when Norasharee bin Gous sought to place fresh evidence before the courts the day before his execution, in the form of a letter to the court that he requested they take to be a formal legal application, his family and friends had to beg and plead with prison officers to send his letter to court. The prison officers refused for hours, and eventually delivered the letter just before court closed for the day. The Court of Appeal then set a hearing after hours to hear Norasharee’s case, and dismissed it after deliberating for around an hour. He was executed at dawn the next day.
Many death row prisoners have represented themselves in recent months after being unsuccessful in appointing a lawyer to assist them. For a period, 13 death row prisoners represented themselves in a case against the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) regarding the prison illegally forwarding private correspondence between them and their lawyers/family members to the AGC. Over the course of a month, family and friends of the prisoners approached at least 23 lawyers, asking them to take up the case after their previous lawyers, M Ravi and Violet Netto, lost their Practising Certificates.
Pannir Selvam, who had to file his own application for a stay in 2019, went on to win a stay of execution, and remains alive today. In the three years since, he has written and released three songs. He had his 35th birthday yesterday.
In April this year, Datchinamurthy Kataiah represented himself in an application to stay his execution, after his family failed to appoint a lawyer in the days leading up to his execution. He won.
In July this year, Kalwant Singh filed his own application for a stay of execution after his family failed to appoint a lawyer in the days leading up to his execution. After a hearing date was set, lawyer Too Xing Ji came forward to assist Kalwant in court. Though he failed to secure a stay of execution for Kalwant, the court described his efforts as ‘valiant’. This ‘valiant’ effort would not have been possible if not for Kalwant’s courage and conviction to fight his case till the last moment, though no lawyer was willing to help.
This week, Abdul Rahim bin Shapiee is one of four death row prisoners set to be executed. There are two executions scheduled for tomorrow, 2 August. Two more, including Rahim, are scheduled for Friday, 5 August. Rahim is the only one out of the four who is named as a plaintiff in the access to justice case filed today. What does the case mean for him, given that his execution notice has arrived? Will he get to have his case heard? Or will his execution go ahead this Friday? What is our answer to Plaintiff #3?