A Singaporean court yesterday suspended the prominent human rights lawyer M. Ravi from practicing for five years, for making “grave and baseless accusations of improper conduct” against the attorney-general’s office.
In a written judgment delivered yesterday by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the court stated that no solicitor can be allowed to “recklessly and baselessly undermine the very pillars of the legal system in which he operates.”
“Mr Ravi’s misconduct exhibits a fundamental lack of respect and a blatant disregard for the integrity of Singapore’s key legal institutions,” Menon said. The court added that Ravi’s misconduct “discloses an ingrained belief which points to a defect in character rather than a mere lapse in judgment.” The five-year suspension is the maximum allowable sanction for a lawyer’s misconduct.
In recent years, Ravi Madasamy has played a prominent role in the campaign against the death penalty in Singapore, representing a number of death row prisoners, often pro bono. The claim of misconduct arose from a case in which Ravi acted for the Malaysian national Gobi Avedian, who was sentenced to death in 2018 after being convicted of importing 40.22 grams of heroin into Singapore. In October 2020, after reviewing the case, the High Court quashed the death sentence and reimposed a prison sentence of 15 years.
In the interview he gave after the verdict with The Online Citizen, a news site that has had its own share of run-ins with the Singaporean authorities, Ravi claimed that the public prosecutor had “been overzealous in his prosecution and that has led to the death sentence of Gobi.” He also said it was “troubling” that the court noted that prosecutors ran a different case in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, which called into question whether the prosecution had acted fairly. He later posted similar accusations on Facebook.
This is not the first time that a lawyer representing death row prisoners has experienced friction with the Singaporean judicial system. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform that tracks civic space and political freedoms, lawyers in the city-state have frequently “faced harassment and punitive cost orders for their work defending individuals on death row.” As well as the case of M. Ravi, the Monitor cited the case of Zaid Malek, a Malaysian lawyer who reported that he was detained and interrogated by Singapore police over two days in July of last year, when he traveled to Singapore to provide legal advice to a prisoner on death row.
Judges have also imposed what the International Commission of Jurists has described as “punitive cost orders,” often following the filing of late-stage applications to get clients off death row, which the courts have described as “frivolous, vexatious, or an abuse of process.” To take one recent example, last June, the High Court ordered two lawyers to pay the Attorney-General SG$20,000 (around $14,500) in costs for a failed application on behalf of 17 death-row inmates.
These cost orders, the ICJ added, have “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.”
This trend reflects a curious lack of confidence on the part of the Singaporean government, which despite its achievements assumes that public trust in Singapore’s institutions remains so fragile that these institutions must be guarded vigilantly from any form of public censure or criticism. It can also be seen in the legal response of many senior politicians to even the lightest mockery.
In an emailed statement yesterday, Phil Robertson of the rights group Human Rights Watch said that Ravi’s suspension reflected the “hyper-sensitive” nature of Singapore’s judiciary.
“In democracies around the world, it is expected that lawyers will speak their minds about the outcome of a trial they’ve been involved in, but Singapore punishes such expression, and their society is poorer for it,” Robertson said. “What’s truly sad is other lawyers will look at what happened to Ravi and be even more reluctant to represent cases out of favor with the Singapore authorities, including persons facing the death penalty on drug charges.”