SINGAPORE: Upset and demoralised on the day before his client was to be executed for drug trafficking, lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam put up a Facebook post in May scandalising the judiciary.
He alleged that judges – whom he called “million dollar men” – had “turned blind” to a law that is “cruel and unjust”, and were more concerned with acquiring wealth and material things.
For that post, Thuraisingam was on Monday (Aug 7) fined S$6,000 for contempt of court.
“The statement was openly and unreservedly scandalising of the courts (and) a regrettably deliberate attack on the integrity of the judiciary,” Justice See Kee Oon said.
Thuraisingam published the post on May 19, hours before his client Muhammad Ridzuan Mohd Ali was hanged for trafficking 72.50g of diamorphine. The lawyer, who represented Ridzuan pro bono, said in an affidavit that he was “extremely upset” on the eve of the execution and “demoralised that there was nothing further I could do for him as his lawyer”.
In his affidavit, Thuraisingam said his last meeting with Ridzuan - three weeks before he was hanged - “still haunts me till today”. He had difficulty accepting the fact that there was nothing more he could do to save his client from the gallows.
Senior Counsel Ang Cheng Hock, who represented Thuraisingam at the contempt proceedings, said it was clear the lawyer had been emotionally disturbed and not in the right frame of mind when he “carelessly” published the post, a 22-line poem he had written himself.
In handing down the judgment, Justice See said: “I appreciate the considerable mental strain (Thuraisingam) faces in handling capital cases on a regular basis.
“In view of the high stakes involved, this is undoubtedly emotionally training … it is an unenviable task. I recognise that it is not something every lawyer is prepared to shoulder.”
However, the judge said this was “not merely a careless or thoughtless post, created on a whim.”
“A careless message on social media might possibly be one communicated in a sub-140-character tweet. What (Thuraisingam) posted was of quite a different character,” he added. As a relatively senior lawyer, “it is unacceptable that he should have resorted to such recklessly irresponsible conduct.”
When Thuraisingam received word from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) that the post was in contempt of court, he removed it immediately, Mr Ang said. He also published a public apology on Facebook and gave an interview to The Straits Times, in which he admitted he had “made a mistake”.
What Thuraisingam wanted to convey, Mr Ang said, was that “the well-heeled in society do not care about this law (the death penalty)” as it generally only affects the poor.
Mr Ang added that Thuraisingam had sent an apology letter to the AGC.
He also pointed to the lawyer’s long history of pro bono work under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences.
Senior State Counsel Hui Choon Kuen, on the other hand, sought a S$10,000 fine on Monday, arguing that Thuraisingam’s statement “posed a real risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice”. He noted that the Facebook post was shared 357 times as of May 26.
Mr Hui said the fact that Thuraisingam is a lawyer is an aggravating factor. “He has a duty to defend the courts against unjust criticism and yet he has done the exact opposite,” he argued. Thuraisingam had also “employed words of a particularly gratuitous and offensive bent, by comparing judges to rats”, Mr Hui added.
The AGC has sent a request to the Law Society of Singapore to have Mr Thuraisingam’s conduct referred to a Disciplinary Tribunal.
“(Thuraisingam) may have … removed his Facebook post and (apologised), but in the nature of how information circulates on the Internet and social media, it will mean that the damage can never be completely undone,” said the judge.