Monday, July 24, 2006

A Singapore lawyer's fight for human rights

M Ravi and his fight for human rights
by Holger Weyhmüller
Gaeubote
Gaeufelden, Germany
20 Jul 06


In Singapore it is considered a crime to ask “Why” but this doesn't faze 37-year-old M Ravi. He is defending clients that face the death penalty, as well as the political opposition of the government in court and asks this important question: “Why?” At the moment, the lawyer is touring the world to look for supporters and has included Germany, where his campaign started in Gaeufelden. The Gaeubote is the first newspaper to talk to him.

One gram can decide about life or death. Whoever is caught in Singapore with 500 grams or more of Cannabis faces the gallows. One gram less and an accused will escape the noose. This is the law in Singapore. At least the law in most of the cases, because M Ravi is aware of 6 cases where the accused – even carrying a significant amount over the 500-gram limit didn't end their lives at the gallows.

Why is this not the case for everybody, the Singaporean asks. He doesn't only ask this question to himself. He asks this question to the judges, to the state attorneys and to the government. And he asks this question to the public in the world.

He is supported by Rodny Scherzer, who works in the management of Hewlett-Packard and has become aware about the work of the human rights lawyer through the Internet. In the year 2002, German girl Julia Bohl faced trial in Singapore – a touching experience says Rodny Scherzer. Then 20-year-old Bohl was carrying nearly 700 grams of Cannabis in her luggage. Under normal circumstances she would have been hanged for this but through a strong involvement of the German government she escaped the death sentence and was sentenced to a five-year prison term instead. She was released on July 15, 2005 for good behavior. Her defense was done by Singapore’s best lawyer, says M Ravi.

It is not only the fact that Ravi is spreading the word across the world about the Singaporean government's death penalty rule that makes things dangerous for him. It is also the energetic and convincing way in which M Ravi follows his path and the way he handles the pressure from the government – he just ignores it. For a long time, he has been facing the threat of suspension from his legal practice, he says. Furthermore, he has been the victim of an attack-campaign in Singapore's media where the subject of the suicide of his mother has been repeatedly raised.

Since he first decided to take on a death penalty case three years ago when no other lawyer wanted the job because of the very low possibility of success, many of his clients have left him. They were worried that his fight against the death penalty and his support for the opposition would negatively impact on their own cases, Ravi says in the Hotel Aramis in Nebringen and smiles. The political and legal system of the small country at the border to Malaysia cannot be compared to a democracy, Ravi (who did part of his studies in Cardiff, Wales) explains.

The political system is more comparable to a dictatorship and provides very serious penalties for rather small crimes. Who, for example, gets a $1,000 fine for spitting chewing gum on the street? But this is not what catches Ravi´s attention. It is the mandatory death sentence given to anyone caught in possession of 500 grams or more of Cannabis that concerns him as well as how convicted people are treated prior to their execution.

For example, photos of the convicted wearing nice cloths are taken 24 hours prior to their execution. These photos are taken in several faked situations, for example, posing whilst seated behind a desk like a manager of a large company. Ravi says he is aware of a particular case where these photos were given to the mother after the execution, as if to tell her that this is what your son could have been, a procedure that draws rage and anger in Ravi. Execution and death penalty is one thing but doing it in this particular way is incredibly cruel and inhumane. The case is well documented in his book Hung at Dawn. The English version of this book is being translated by Rodny Scherzer into German and will be released in Germany in the near future.

Ravi is also fighting another cruel aspect of death penalty. Once the death penalty has been imposed, there is no way back. The present President of Singapore has never granted presidential clemency. “An innocent man can be hanged due to procedure” even if new evidence turns up at the last minute. Clemency will not be granted. Why must it be like this, asks Ravi.

At the moment, M Ravi is working on his third defense case of a convicted drug smuggler who has received the ultimate sentence. It is a Nigerian man named Amara Totchi. Ravi doesn't have much hope of saving him from execution. Regardless, the Singaporean lawyer, whose forefathers came from India, is taking up the challenge and spreading the message globally to help this man, and he is starting his campaign in Germany.

Why Germany? Germany has taken a strong stand against capital punishment in the case of Julia Bohl and has taken concrete action in that case. The result of this action saved Julia Bohl's life, even though she initially faced the mandatory death sentence. Germany was successful in putting pressure on the Singaporean government.

The result was different in the case of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australia. The pressure of the Australian government in that case was not sufficient, says Ravi. The Australian government had protested but also stated that the execution would not have any consequence in the relationship between the countries. The Australian was executed in December 2005. Now M Ravi hopes for support out of Germany and hopes for the start of a fruitful relationship that ends in the abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Singapore.

Link to the report originally posted at SDP's website

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