FOR the first time in nearly 20 years, five judges instead of the usual three will sit later this month when the Court of Appeal decides if a convicted drug trafficker should be spared the noose.

The move to expand the bench underlines the gravity of the trial involving Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali, 28, and its impact on revised drug laws which give judges the discretion to not impose the death penalty in specific cases.

In another rare instance, Ridzuan has also been assigned three lawyers to argue his appeal.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had said last month that the apex court could be expanded to five judges to hear selected cases of “jurisprudential significance”.

This will allow “difficult or unsettled issues” to be resolved “with the benefit of the collective wisdom and insights of a larger pool of judges”, he explained.

According to the court schedule, Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang and V. K. Rajah, and Justices Woo Bih Li and Quentin Loh, will hear the appeal.

Ridzuan and his friend Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim, 30, were arrested in a drugs bust on May 6, 2010. Both were found guilty of trafficking in not less than 72.5g of heroin last year. Anyone convicted of trafficking in over 15g of heroin faces the death penalty.

But in 2012, the law had been amended to allow judges to consider a life sentence instead for drug couriers whom the Attorney- General’s Chambers certifies as having cooperated in disrupting drug-trafficking activities.

Haleem became the first accused to get such a certificate, and was given life imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane. But Ridzuan was sentenced to hang.

During his appeal, the five appeal judges are expected to consider the certification process, and clarify points of law to be raised.

Ridzuan will be defended by Mr James Masih, who will act as lead counsel, Mr Joseph Tan Chin Aik and Dr Chuang Wei Ping.

Criminal lawyers here said they are viewing the trial with great interest. “Even if there is a difference of opinion between the judges, their interpretation will provide clarity to different aspects of the law,” said Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore president Subhas Anandan.

The last time a five-judge Court of Appeal sat was in 1995.

Then Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Judges of Appeal M. Karthigesu and L. P. Thean, as well as Justices Goh Joon Seng and Chao Hick Tin, had to rule on whether 25 people acquitted of assembling unlawfully to gamble had a case to answer.

They had been found not guilty in 1994 by a magistrate who based his judgment on an earlier Court of Appeal ruling that members of such an assembly must decide to commit an offence which carries a jail term of “six months or upwards”. Since the maximum penalty for gambling is a six- month jail term, he reasoned that they could not be charged.

But the five-judge Court of Appeal held that the phrase “six months or upwards” included any offence for which the maximum punishment was six months.

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