High Court dismisses civil case filed by 17 death row inmates alleging racial bias

SINGAPORE – The High Court on Thursday (Dec 2) dismissed an application by 17 death row inmates to seek a court declaration that the Attorney-General had discriminated against them when prosecuting them for capital drug offences because they were of Malay ethnicity.

In a written judgment, Justice Valerie Thean found that the application amounted to an abuse of the court process.

The prisoners, all Singaporeans with the exception of one Malaysian, relied on statistical evidence to argue that the likelihood of Malay offenders being sentenced to death for drug offences was higher than that for the other ethnic groups.

The judge said the premise of the case was logically flawed. “This causal link is obscure. They have, in essence, asked the court to act on conjecture,” she said.

Justice Thean added: “In the multicultural setting that forms the background to this application, serious allegations concerning ethnicity and equality ought not to be made without due care and diligence, particularly in cases where life and liberty are at stake.

“It is disrespectful to the court process to bring before the court speculative assertions, conjecture cloaked in general interest, and cases that a cursory reading would show to be irrelevant.”

The judge said valuable resources are diverted away from deserving litigants, whom the court exists to serve, when the court’s process is misused.

“Public resources are finite: The cost of manifestly unmeritorious claims is borne by the community as a whole,” she said.

The application, filed on Aug 13, is part of a series of unsuccessful post-appeal challenges started by one or more of the prisoners.

Deputy Attorney-General Tai Wei Shyong argued that the prisoners were merely trying to delay the execution of their punishment by launching another “collateral attack” against their concluded criminal appeals.

The prisoners had urged the court to infer, from the statistical data, that the investigatory and prosecutorial processes must have been influenced by discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity.

They claimed that the statistical disparities resulted from inadequate policies or criteria guiding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, or the “unconscious biases” of prosecutors.

Their lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, also asserted that a Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officer would testify that the agency arrested more Malays because most of its officers were Malay and would therefore seek out Malay informers who could provide information on Malay suspects.

The officer later filed a police report denying that he made these statements.

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In her judgment, Justice Thean noted that the inmates had not put forward any specific evidence to support their claim that they were treated differently because of their ethnicity.

She said statistical evidence alone was not sufficient to establish a causal connection between being of Malay ethnicity and receiving less favourable treatment.

The judge noted that the only variables reflected in the inmates’ data were the ethnic group and nationality of each offender; no account was taken of the multitude of other variables that would have contributed to the convictions and sentences in each case.

“It may well be that from 2010 to June 1, 2021, there were, as a matter of fact, more cases against Malay offenders where the AG had grounds to prosecute the offender for a capital drug offence,” said the judge.

Last month, Justice Kannan Ramesh struck out a bid by the 17 inmates to start contempt of court proceedings against Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam for referring to this case during the parliamentary debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica) on Oct 4.

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