Death-row inmates in limbo as judges neglect their duties

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am

A row has erupted between defence lawyers and judges over the fate of what is estimated to be dozens of death-row convicts left in a legal limbo - for up to a decade, in some cases - because their original trial judges have not bothered to put their conviction rulings into writing.

Appeals against sentences to higher courts cannot be filed without the written judgment stating the grounds for the conviction. A standing rule requires judges to write their rulings within eight weeks of delivering a verdict, according to a senior judicial officer who requested anonymity. Yet some convicts have been waiting almost a decade for the written ruling.

'The delay is a form of torture and a slow death,' said prominent rights lawyer Karpal Singh who, in an unprecedented move, asked a superior court on Tuesday to free two death-row inmates.

They are vegetable-seller Baha Jambol, 45, and housewife Amathevelli Ramasamy, 51, who have been waiting nine and six years, respectively, for their written judgments.

Mr Karpal said higher courts could have freed them both on appeal but their judges had failed in their duties. 'This is a horrific miscarriage of justice,' he said. 'They and others like them must be freed immediately.'

Baha was sentenced to death in 1998 for drug trafficking, which carries a mandatory death sentence. Through Mr Karpal, Baha wrote 11 letters asking for a written judgment from the judge.

Amathevelli was sentenced to death for murder in November 2001.

In another case, Aziz Sharif, 28, who was sentenced to death in 2001 after being convicted of murder, is still waiting for the written judgment to file an appeal. His lawyer, Harbahjan Singh, insists Aziz's conviction was flawed.

'I wrote five letters to the court over the matter and, sadly, they did not have the decency to reply to any,' Mr Harbahjan told the New Straits Times newspaper last week.

Aziz's father, Sharif Satar, said his son has been emotionally devastated by the long delay.

'I don't understand why the judge is taking so long write his own words,' he said. 'I told my son to pray to Allah ... we also pray every day for mercy.'

The exact number of death-row inmates in such a predicament is unknown, but lawyers have come forward with new cases every day since the New Straits Times first exposed the problem earlier this month.

The Bar Council issued a circular to its 12,500 members on Monday urging them to come forward with any such cases.

'It could be several dozen cases,' said opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan, a lawyer.

As of 2006, about 320 people were on death row awaiting the outcome of appeals and petitions for clemency to the king.

On Monday, newspapers named two judges who had failed to write judgments and reported that a third, unnamed judge had failed to write 30 such judgments over the past 20 years.

Chief Justice Ahmad Fiaruz yesterday promised to investigate the cause of the delays, punish the offenders and expedite appeals.

His promises were not enough for some. 'The long delay is the fault of the judges and has caused a serious miscarriage of justice. The affected death-row inmates have suffered enough and should be freed immediately,' said lawyer Charles Hector, who has campaigned against the death penalty.