Karpal Singh: Lawyer and politician who devoted his life to defending human rights activists and prisoners on death row

Karpal Singh was a veteran Malaysian opposition lawmaker and lawyer and a tireless defender of human rights activists and death row prisoners who was himself detained without trial for over a year. He died in a car crash.

Singh, who used a wheelchair after he was paralysed in an earlier car accident in 2005, was found guilty of sedition in April this year and fined for publicly questioning the decision of an influential state ruler to remove a minister. He was in the process of appealing that decision, which could have seen him suspended from parliament. “If you slow down, you die. In this life, you have to fight,” Singh said after retaining his parliamentary seat in 2013 general elections with a higher majority.

A staunch opponent of the death penalty in Malaysia and elsewhere, he was regarded as Malaysia’s leading criminal lawyer. He led the defence in high-profile cases, including what was seen as politically motivated sodomy charges against the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and drug trafficking charges involving foreign nationals.

“We’ve lost a colleague; an indefatigable fighter for justice; the legendary Karpal Singh,” Anwar said on his Facebook page. Singh was travelling with four others when his car collided with a truck on a highway. Singh and his personal assistant were killed immediately.

Born in 1940, Singh started his law firm in 1970 after graduating from the National University of Singapore. In the same year he joined the Democratic Action Party, of which he later became chairman, after deadly racial riots in 1970 prompted him to fight for racial unity.

Singh entered parliament in 1970 after winning the Jelutong seat, where his reputation as a fierce lawyer earned him the nickname the “Tiger of Jelutong”. He defended many people on death row. In 1977, he persuaded the king to pardon a 14-year old sentenced to death for possession of a firearm. He defended also the Australian Kevin Barlow, the first foreigner executed for drug trafficking in Malaysia in 1986.

Along with many other opposition politicians, Singh was detained without trial under a harsh security law in October 1987 on allegations of inciting racial tensions. He was deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International before he was released in January 1989.

“A good lawyer dies in the saddle. The same applies equally to a politician. They should work to the last,” Singh said in 2013.

CHRIS MAUME  

Karpal Singh, lawyer and politician: born 28 June 1940; married (five children); died 17 April 2014.

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