From death sentence to life in prison to freedom

In May 1998, he was granted clemency by the late president Ong Teng Cheong, who commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment.

After 16 years behind bars, Mathavakannan Kalimuthu will soon walk out of Changi Prison a free man.

On Friday, January 20, the High Court ruled that Mathavakannan, 33, cannot be jailed for his natural life as he had committed the offence in May 1996.

He will be released from prison at a later date.

Mathavakannan was 19 when he and two other men killed a gangster in 1996.

He was granted clemency in 1998 - a year after the Court of Appeal ruled that for offences committed after Aug 20, 1997, life imprisonment should mean incarceration for the rest of a convicted person's natural life.

The landmark judgment in 1997 involved the case of Abdul Naser Amer Hamsah, who had been sentenced to life behind bars for kidnapping.

It led former chief justice Yong Pung How to rule that a life term meant life.

However, he also said at that time that his ruling would not affect those already serving their life sentences or awaiting trial.

Before this ruling, a life sentence meant a 20-year term.

A prisoner serving a life term could be released - with good behaviour - after serving about 13 years.

At yesterday's hearing, Mathavakannan's lawyers, Mr Subhas Anandan and Mr Sunil Sudheesan of RHT Law, argued that their client's presidential clemency was granted for an offence committed before Aug 20, 1997.

In his communications with the Prisons Department in 2008, Mr Subhas was informed that Mr Ong had commuted Mathavakannan's death sentence to "natural life imprisonment".

Mr Subhas argued that there was no mention of commuted sentences in the ruling. Since there was ambiguity, the benefit of the doubt should be given to their client.

"Mr Mathavakannan was of the belief and held the legitimate expectation that he had to serve 20 years' imprisonment in total and would potentially qualify for remission after 13 years and four months," he said.

Justice Lee Seiu Kin, who presided over the hearing, agreed and concluded that the presidential pardon is to be construed as 20 years' imprisonment.

Cardinal principle

Clemency cases in Singapore are rare but a lawyer, Mr Amolat Singh - who was not involved in this case - said the judgment illustrates a "cardinal principle in criminal law."

He explained that the principle is that "all changes in criminal law imposing liability should apply only to future cases".

Another lawyer, Mr B.J. Lean, said the decision is right because "if there was a commuting from death to life sentence, then the law at that time should be applied".

Life sentences are usually meted out to killers and kidnappers but can also apply to other crimes under the Penal Code, such as cases involving criminal breach of trust by a public servant.

This article was first published in The New Paper.