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'Blatant, egregious' abuse of process: Apex court rejects last-ditch appeals from drug trafficker on death row

SINGAPORE — The execution of a convicted drug trafficker who has been on death row for more than a decade looks set to proceed, after the Court of Appeal on Tuesday (March 29) dismissed his latest bids for a reprieve.

'Blatant, egregious' abuse of process: Apex court rejects last-ditch appeals from drug trafficker on death row

Undated handout photo shows Nagaenthran Dharmalingam (second from left) with his sister and cousins in Malaysia.

  • Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, 33, has been on death row since 2010
  • The Malaysian's previous appeals and a bid for clemency from the President had all been rejected
  • He was given a last-minute stay of execution in November last year
  • His new lawyer argued for him to be assessed by an independent panel of psychiatrists, as they contend he should not be executed given his alleged intellectual disability
  • The Court of Appeal dismissed his latest applications, calling his case "baseless and without merit"

SINGAPORE — The execution of a convicted drug trafficker who has been on death row for more than a decade looks set to proceed, after the Court of Appeal on Tuesday (March 29) dismissed his latest bids for a reprieve.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who delivered the apex court’s judgement on behalf of a panel of five judges, called Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam’s case “baseless and without merit” and said his last-ditch appeals amounted to a "blatant and egregious" abuse of court processes.

"(The applications) have been conducted with the seeming aim of unjustifiably delaying the carrying into effect of the sentence imposed on the appellant," the chief justice added.

Nagaenthran, 33, was given the death penalty in 2010 for importing 42.72g of pure heroin into Singapore. The Malaysian had been caught in April 2009 while entering Singapore from Malaysia at Woodlands Checkpoint with a bundle of drugs strapped to his thigh.

The apex court previously issued an eleventh-hour stay of execution in November last year after he tested positive for Covid-19. His earlier appeals were dismissed in 2011 and 2017, and his petition to the President for clemency had also been rejected.

On March 1 this year, the apex court heard Nagaenthran’s latest applications — a criminal motion for him to be examined by an independent panel of psychiatrists, as well as a civil appeal against the High Court’s decision to deny him leave for a judicial review.

His defence counsel contended that Nagaenthran is intellectually disabled and thus should not be executed in accordance with international human rights law. 

Nagaenthran is represented by Ms Violet Netto, while his previous lawyer M Ravi — who is currently on medical leave and cannot practise law — was also present in court.

The case has drawn global media coverage from outlets including CNN, The Guardian and The Washington Post.

'STOPGAP MEASURE'

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Menon noted the "torturous path" by which these applications came about.

He expressed the court’s satisfaction that Nagaenthran’s applications were “brought not with genuine intentions to seek relief, but rather as a stopgap measure devised by him and counsel to delay carrying out of the sentence in that matter”.

The chief justice added: “We observe that it’s improper to engage in or encourage last-ditch attempts to reopen concluded matters without a reasonable basis.”

While the imposition and carrying out of death sentences are “always difficult matters”, Chief Justice Menon said that the proper recourse for lawyers on a societal level was to seek legislative change.

“But as long as the law validly provides for the imposition of capital punishment in the specified circumstances, it is improper for counsel to abuse the process of court and bring the administration of criminal justice into disrepute by filing one hopeless application after another and drip-feeding the supposed evidence,” he added.

In this latest round of applications, Nagaenthran had filed a civil appeal against High Court judge See Kee Oon’s decision in November last year to deny leave for a judicial review on the basis that he allegedly had the mental age of someone under 18.

The chief justice said that Justice See was “plainly correct” in his decision. This was because Mr Ravi’s application was premised on a single affidavit from himself where he “made a bare assertion” about Nagaenthran’s mental state, and he had no medical expertise to back him up.

Mr Ravi's assertion also seemed to be based on a single half-hour-long visit with Nagaenthran on Nov 2 last year, Chief Justice Menon said.

The court noted that the Singapore Prisons Service was ready to provide Nagaenthran’s regular medical reports that showed he had no abnormality of mind, but Mr Ravi and Ms Netto had objected to the reports being admitted as evidence, citing Nagaenthran’s medical confidentiality.

Chief Justice Menon said the reports should be viewed as “presumptively objective” because they were not produced in response to the applications.

“Seen in that light, the objection mounted on the appellant’s behalf supports the inference that he is aware of the evidential difficulties with his case, and is seeking to prevent the court from accessing that evidence because he knows or believes it would undermine his case,” the chief justice added.

In terms of Nagaenthran’s criminal motion for him to be assessed by psychiatrists, Chief Justice Menon said it was, at best, an attempt to adduce more evidence to support his civil appeal, which was procedurally improper.

The apex court ruled that psychiatric reports tendered at a late stage by Ms Netto were “devoid of any weight”, as the psychiatrists who wrote them had not examined or spoken to Nagaenthran before. They had also relied on affidavits filed by Mr Ravi and Nagaenthran’s brother.

Chief Justice Menon added: “The appellant has been afforded due process under law, and it is not open to him to challenge the outcome of that process when he has put nothing forward to suggest that he does have a case to be considered.

“Counsel who file unmeritorious applications, when they know or ought reasonably to know that the application is without basis, are acting improperly.”

MR RAVI'S 'EMBARASSING' ACTIONS

Separately, the apex court went into detail about Ms Netto's and Mr Ravi's actions during the March 1 hearing. Ms Netto had asked for permission for Mr Ravi to sit beside her and provide "technical support", which she said would be limited to handing her documents.

Chief Justice Menon noted that as the hearing progressed, however, Ms Netto often had to have an "extended, hushed discussion" with Mr Ravi before making submissions or responding to anything.

This was "disrespectful to the court" and "embarassing since Mr Ravi was not permitted to act as a solicitor at this time but appeared to be giving instructions to Ms Netto", the chief justice added.

The other appellate judges who heard the case were Justices Andrew Phang, Judith Prakash and Belinda Ang, as well as Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin.

Anyone convicted of trafficking more than 15g of pure heroin in Singapore faces the death penalty.

Related topics

court crime Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam court of appeal death row execution appeal drug trafficking drug trafficker death penalty

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