International Commission of Jurists Publishes Statement: Singapore: Halt executions and cease punitive cost orders against death-row lawyers

Singapore’s authorities must immediately halt any impending executions, and cease using punitive cost orders against lawyers representing death-row inmates, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today.

On 5 August 2022, Singapore executed two persons, Abdul Rahim Shapiee and Ong Seow Ping, for “drug possession for the purpose of trafficking”. Their execution followed the Court of Appeal’s denial of Abdul Rahim Shapiee’s stay of execution request based on a lawsuit he and 23 other death-row inmates had filed alleging obstructions in their access to lawyers.

“The death penalty is wholly incompatible with human rights and the Rule of Law. The Singapore government has stepped up the number of executions this year with ten people executed so far,” said ICJ Commissioner Ambiga Sreenevasan. “Singapore and all other countries that continue to impose capital punishment must revisit their position.”

Executions constitute a violation of the right to life and are the ultimate cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. While the ICJ opposes the death penalty under any circumstances, international law and standards on the use of the death penalty are clear that it may never be imposed upon a conviction for drug offences since such offences, in turn, do not involve “intentional killing”, the international law threshold for capital crimes.

The ICJ is also deeply concerned about reports of punitive cost orders against lawyers who have represented clients on death row. Singaporean courts have imposed such orders against lawyers of death-row inmates because they had filed late-stage applications to the courts on behalf of their clients, purportedly on the basis that these applications were “frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process”.

For instance, on 23 June 2022, the High Court ordered two lawyers to pay the Attorney-General SG$20,000 (approx. US$14,500) in costs for a failed application on behalf of 17 death-row inmates who alleged that, as ethnic minorities, they were more likely to be investigated, prosecuted and sentenced to the death penalty for drug offences. The High Court held that the application lacked basis, and was an abuse of process, and that its lack of merit would have been apparent to “reasonable and competent counsel”.

The imposition of punitive cost orders has obstructed death-row inmates’ access to justice and effective remedies, their right to legal counsel — with several having had to represent themselves in court — and, in turn, their right to a fair trial and, ultimately, their right to life. Notably, the 24 death-row inmates who filed the lawsuit on 1 August 2022 were unable to secure legal representation despite approaching several lawyers, as the lawyers were allegedly afraid of adverse cost orders.