Singapore tightens rules on last-minute death penalty appeals

New law follows a series of late-stage applications filed by prisoners after exhausting the appeal and clemency process.

Singaporeans hold a vigil against the death penalty in Hong Lim Park, Singapore.
Singapore's resumption of executions has drawn criticism at home and abroad [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore has passed new legislation to tighten rules surrounding last-minute legal appeals against executions.

The Post-Appeal Applications in Capital Cases Bill, adopted on Tuesday, was drafted in response to a series of cases in recent years where condemned prisoners have filed legal applications after exhausting the appeal and clemency process.

“The amendments will provide greater clarity and guidance on the process and considerations which PACPs [prisoner awaiting capital punishment] and their counsel should have regard to when making post-appeal applications,” senior parliamentary secretary for law and ruling party member Rahayu Mahzam told parliament as she presented the bill. “The amendments also do not affect access to justice. PACPs are not prevented from filing their applications and ventilating their arguments in court.”

The new law says a convicted prisoner can only take post-appeal and clemency actions with the permission of the Court of Appeal, and that applications can only be filed if the prisoner has “new relevant evidence” that they could not have presented earlier.

Among the other measures, the Court of Appeal will be the only court empowered to grant a stay of execution.

“Singapore seems to be more interested in preserving the perceived sanctity of their courts than ensuring people facing death have every opportunity to appeal their sentence,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera. “For such a grievous, rights violating penalties like capital punishment, Singapore should be bending over backwards to facilitate appeals rather than trying to chop off death row prisoners’ last chance at justice.”

Singapore resumed hangings after the coronavirus pandemic, attracting global attention over its execution of 33-year-old Malaysian Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, whose lawyers and family fought to the last minute to stop his hanging.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the legal efforts to save the life of Nagaenthran, who had been convicted of drug trafficking, describing them as a “blatant and egregious abuse” of the legal process and adding that it was “improper to engage in or encourage last ditch attempts” to delay or stop an execution.

At least 10 people have been hanged in Singapore this year, and about 60 people are on death row, according to the Transformative Justice Collective, a Singapore activist group calling for an immediate moratorium.

Most of those facing the death penalty in the country of 5.5 million have been convicted for drug offences, with people carrying more than a tiny amount of a substance such as heroin presumed to be trafficking.

“Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the ‘most serious crimes’, involving intentional killing,” a group of United Nations experts said in July. “Drug offences clearly do not meet this threshold.”

Singapore’s government says capital punishment saves lives because it deters drug crime, and has the support of the majority of the population.

Source: Al Jazeera