The Singapore lawyer who defends those facing the gallows

Singapore is known for being tough on crime, with some of the harshest punishments in the world, including a mandatory death sentence for certain offences, including drug-related crimes.

One lawyer, M Ravi, has been taking on the state in high-profile cases for decades.

Ravi has been diagnosed as bipolar and is currently suspended from practising law on mental health grounds, but he has been heavily involved in the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with a learning disability found guilty of drug offences and sentenced to death.

A last-minute appeal that attracted worldwide attention gave Nagaenthran a reprieve, and he contracted COVID-19 in November of last year, further delaying the process.

Singapore’s Court of Appeal heard his case on March 1, and has reserved judgement until an undisclosed date.

Ravi spoke to Al Jazeera about why he takes on such challenging cases. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al Jazeera: You are one of the few lawyers involved in the defence of people facing the death penalty. Why do you take on such cases?

M Ravi: My original focus was mainly commercial and corporate cases, looking at intellectual property, technology, that kind of stuff.

In 2003, when a Malaysian boy Vignes Mourthi was facing the death penalty [for smuggling 27 grams of heroin into the country], I mounted a last-minute constitutional challenge at the request of the former opposition leader in Singapore, Mr J B Jeyaretnam. He’s almost like a Nelson Mandela of Singapore.

On the eve of the execution, I asked the then Chief Justice if we could reopen this case. He said that the case had run its course and there was little I could do.

I then asked [that] if I could show that he was innocent, would Mourthi still be hanged? He said yes. That was a horrifying statement. I saw the way the poor and the oppressed were being treated. It brought me to fight against the death penalty in Singapore.

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

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

M Ravi: As I was preparing to argue Nagaenthran’s appeal, my doctor said suddenly that I am unwell. And that’s it, the Law Society said I have to stop as the doctor found that I am unwell.

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

The psychiatrists that have spoken to me from around the world, and other people I have spoken to, said that I don’t need treatment and just need rest.

Of course I am frustrated. I was originally told by my doctor that I can still argue Nagaenthran’s case and my MC [medical note] should end on January 13. Then he extended it to March 13. And the court is not going to wait, the Attorney General is pressing that Nagaenthran’s case should go ahead and be rushed through.

Al Jazeera: What other challenges do you face when taking on these difficult cases, going up against the Singapore state?

M Ravi: The Law Society and the Attorney General have applied to the Court of Appeal to suspend me from practice – or even strike me off.

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

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

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

In this case, the Court of Appeal said we have made a mistake. The question I asked the Attorney General is ‘What if I had not come to practice law in this case?’ Gobi would have been gone. I criticised the entire administration of the death penalty.

Then there is the media. They constantly say that I am mad. There is psychological harassment about my psychiatric condition.

Al Jazeera: Will Singapore ever get rid of the death penalty?

M Ravi: It will. Just look at the case of Yong Vui Kong. He was only 19 when he was caught [trafficking heroin into Singapore in 2007].

This boy was supposed to be executed and, on the eve of the execution, I filed to stop it.

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 Asia region don’t practise it. Philippines is a no, Myanmar no, Thailand no, Indonesia yes but still slow.

And now we have Richard Branson taking them on and telling other rich people about it.

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

Al Jazeera: How confident are you and your team of Nagaenthran’s appeal?

M Ravi: It’s a humungous amount of work. There are five Deputy Public Prosecutors, they are all at the top. Singapore finds a lot of resources to kill people.

I think I will be able to win. Five judges are [hearing] the case. If it’s a shut case and not serious and open, they wouldn’t even come.

Secondly, psychiatric prison experts from the UK and Australia have given their expert opinion to say that the methods used by the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore are backwards. The tests are all wrong. The manner in which they are administered are very childish.

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