5-judge court dismisses drug trafficker's appeal

Convicted drug trafficker Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali on Thursday had his appeal dismissed by the first five-judge Court of Appeal to sit in almost 20 years.

But the death row inmate, who was found guilty of trafficking in not less than 72.5g of heroin last April and sentenced to the gallows, could yet escape the noose under recently amended drug laws.

His lawyers will ask the High Court to order the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to certify that he substantively assisted the authorities after his arrest in 2010 - one of two conditions before a sentencing judge can opt to impose a life sentence.

Muhammad Ridzuan, who had fought the trafficking charge, failed to receive the AGC certificate last year. But his accomplice, Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim, admitted to the offence and was given life in prison and 24 strokes of the cane, after becoming the first to be awarded a certificate.

Hearing Muhammad Ridzuan's case on Thursday in a packed courtroom, Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang and V.K. Rajah, and Justices Woo Bih Li and Quentin Loh unanimously dismissed the 28-year-old's appeal.

They disagreed with his lawyers' claim that he had not known he was handling heroin when caught in 2010.

Justice Rajah noted that evidence produced during the trial had shown that Muhammad Ridzuan and his accomplice both knew they were handling heroin. He added that they had a common intention to make as much profit as possible.

Last month, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the apex court could be expanded to five judges from the usual three to hear selected cases of "jurisprudential significance", and facilitate the resolving of "difficult or unsettled issues".

The five-judge court on Thursday also dismissed Muhammad Ridzuan's challenge to the AGC decision not to issue him the certificate, saying this should be done in the High Court.

But it granted him a stay of execution after his lawyers Mr James Masih, Mr Joseph Tan Chin Aik and Dr Chuang Wei Ping indicated they would seek the order in the manner advised.

Muhammad Ridzuan and Abdul Haleem were arrested on May 6, 2010 and tried jointly on two charges - one of which carried the death penalty.

Under the law, anyone convicted of trafficking in more than 15g of heroin faces the gallows.

Under drug laws that kicked in last year, judges can give life imprisonment and caning to drug traffickers who played relatively minor roles such as transporting or delivering drugs and who have received the AGC certificate.

Couriers who have mental illnesses that make them less responsible for their actions also qualify for a life term, but without caning. The last time a five-judge Court of Appeal sat was in 1995.

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