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The Singapore lawyer defending those facing the gallows | News on the death penalty

Singapore is known to be tough on crime, with some of the toughest penalties in the world, including a mandatory death penalty for certain offences, including drug-related crimes.

A lawyer, M Ravi, has taken on the state in high-profile cases for decades.

Ravi was diagnosed with bipolar and is currently suspended from practicing law for mental health reasons, but he was heavily involved in the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with a learning disability convicted of offenses related to drugs and sentenced to death.

A last-minute call that caught the world’s attention gave Nagaenthran a reprieve, and he contracted COVID-19 in November last year, further delaying the process.

The Singapore Court of Appeal heard his case on March 1 and reserved judgment until an undisclosed date.

Ravi told Al Jazeera why he takes on such tough cases. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AlJazeera: You are one of the few lawyers involved in the defense of people facing the death penalty. Why do you deal with such cases?

Mr Ravi: Originally, I mainly focused on business and corporate cases, on intellectual property, technology, that sort of thing.

In 2003, when a Malaysian boy Vignes Mourthi faced the death penalty [for smuggling 27 grams of heroin into the country], I mounted a last-minute constitutional challenge at the request of former Singapore opposition leader, Mr. JB Jeyaretnam. He is almost like a Nelson Mandela from Singapore.

On the eve of the execution, I asked the then Chief Justice if we could reopen this case. He said the case had run its course and there was not much I could do.

I then asked [that] if I could prove he was innocent, would Mourthi still be hanged? He said yes. It was a horrible statement. I saw how the poor and downtrodden were treated. This led me to fight against the death penalty in Singapore.

Mr Ravi (right) with the late JB Jeyaretnam, a prominent lawyer and the first opposition politician to be elected to the Singapore parliament in 1981 [File: Vivek Prakash/Reuters]

AlJazeera: The Law Society of Singapore has suspended you from practicing law on psychiatric grounds following your diagnosis of bipolar disorder. What happened?

Mr Ravi: As I was preparing to plead Nagaenthran’s appeal, my doctor suddenly told me that I was not well. And that’s it, the Law Society said I had to quit because the doctor found me unwell.

I’m still working, preparing bundles of papers. If I don’t do this, Nagaenthran will be in the gallows.

Psychiatrists who have spoken to me around the world, and other people I have spoken to, have said that I didn’t need treatment and just needed rest.

Of course, I’m frustrated. Originally, my doctor told me that I could always discuss the case of Nagaenthran and my MC [medical note] should end on January 13. Then he extended it until March 13. And the court won’t wait, the attorney general insists Nagaenthran’s case should go ahead and be dealt with in a hurry.

AlJazeera: What other challenges do you face when taking on these difficult cases, clashing with the state of Singapore?

Mr Ravi: The Law Society and the Attorney General asked the Court of Appeal to suspend me from practice – or even disbar me.

It is because of a case in 2020, the case of Gobi Avedian. He was supposed to be executed, but I managed to stop him. [Avedian was instead sentenced to 15 years jail and 10 strokes of the cane.]

Mr Ravi in ​​car en route to Changi prison with stack of letters for defendant facing execution
Mr Ravi holds messages addressed to Australian death row inmate Nguyen Tuong Van on his way to Changi Prison in Singapore in 2005. [File: Vivek Prakash/Reuters]

The authorities are extremely frustrated because I thwarted their death penalty plan. The Court of Appeal acknowledged that this was the first miscarriage of justice case in Singapore.

In this case, the Court of Appeal said that we had made a mistake. The question I asked the Attorney General is, “What if I hadn’t come to practice law in this case?” Gobi would have disappeared. I criticized the entire administration of the death penalty.

Then there is the media. They constantly say I’m crazy. There is psychological harassment about my psychiatric condition.

AlJazeera: Will Singapore ever abolish the death penalty?

Mr Ravi: It will be. Look at the case of Yong Vui Kong. He was only 19 when he was arrested [trafficking heroin into Singapore in 2007].

This boy was to be executed, and on the eve of the execution, I filed a complaint to arrest him.

It took three, four years, but finally the law was amended [Yong was spared]. The law now gives judges some discretion.

So there is a precursor to tell us that things can change. Singapore is ripe to repeal the death penalty, most countries in the Southeast Asian region do not practice it. Philippines is a no, Myanmar no, Thailand no, Indonesia yes but still slow.

And now we have Richard Branson going after them and telling other rich people about it.

I think they have no choice but to get rid of it.

AlJazeera: How convinced are you and your team of Nagaenthran’s appeal?

Mr Ravi: It is a colossal job. There are five assistant prosecutors, they are all at the top. Singapore finds a lot of resources to kill people.

I think I can win. Five judges are [hearing] the case. If it’s a closed and not serious and open matter, they wouldn’t even come.

Secondly, experts from psychiatric prisons in the UK and Australia have given their expert opinion that the methods used by the Singapore Institute of Mental Health are backward. The tests are all wrong. The way they are administered is very childish.