British critic unlikely to find leniency in Singapore court

After writing a book critical of the Singapore court system, British journalist Alan Shadrake may face a fine and prison time. 'The more they do to me, it proves what I say in the book,' he tells the Monitor.

By , Correspondent

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    British author Alan Shadrake, speaks to reporters before his court hearing on July 30 in Singapore. After writing a book critical of the Singapore court system, Shadrake may face a fine and prison time.
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Cup of tea in one hand, paperback in the other, Alan Shadrake sits down at a shady table in the hotel courtyard. To the foreign tourists walking by, he looks like one of them, another casual visitor flitting through this tropical city-state.

But Mr. Sheldrake, a British journalist, isn’t free to leave town when he pleases. The book he carries, "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock," is his own, and its content has triggered a criminal investigation. He’s already been charged for contempt of court for his bilious criticism of how Singapore’s judiciary applies the death penalty. A criminal defamation case is also pending.

The author is the latest critic to fall foul of Singapore’s prickly rulers, who exert strict controls on civil liberties in their squeaky-clean city. His trial may shine a spotlight on the flaws in this system, at a time when a new generation is beginning to question some of its high-handed ways.

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There is virtually no precedent for a successful legal defense on issues deemed sensitive by Singaporean authorities. The US State Department and human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns over judicial impartiality in political cases, such as ruling-party lawsuits against the opposition.

If found guilty of "scandalizing the judiciary" in his book, Shadrake faces a fine, a jail term, or both. But he refuses to apologize in return for a lesser sentence and says he prefers to defend himself in court when the trial resumes later this month.

“I don’t care what they do to me. The more they do to me, it proves what I say in the book. It will be another chapter in my book,” says Shadrake, who divides his time between Britain and Malaysia, where the book was published in June. He was arrested last month after a private book launch in Singapore.

Implications of impropriety?

At a July 30 hearing, prosecutors filed papers stating that Shadrake’s book implied that Singapore's judiciary was “guilty of impropriety” and succumbs to “political and economic pressures” in death penalty cases, according to news reports.

Last year, Singapore’s High Court fined a Wall Street Journal editor for publishing three articles that criticized the judiciary. Other international publications have also faced legal action in Singapore, often initiated by its founding leader, Lee Kwan Yew, or his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister. Prominent opposition figures have also been sued for defamation, resulting in heavy damages and, in some cases, bankruptcy.

Lee Kwan Yew, who holds the title of Minister Mentor, has argued that legal action is necessary to protect his reputation and that of Singapore, which styles itself as an efficient, crime-free financial hub. Government officials point to international surveys that rate its judiciary system as world-class.

But critics say the government’s legal tactics against its opponents undermines this much-vaunted reputation. In Shadrake’s case, the charge of contempt is particularly troubling because Singapore doesn’t allow a defense of fair comment or public interest, as is the case in libel law.

M. Ravi, a criminal attorney who is defending Shadrake, says the charge is widely used in Singapore. In 2008, three activists who wore T-shirts showing judges as kangaroos were sentenced to short jail terms for showing disrespect.

“They apply contempt of court to stifle dissent. They’ve gone overboard on this,” says Mr. Ravi.

The truth may not matter

Alex Au, a social activist, says Shadrake will face an uphill battle in court, as the question of whether his allegations are true isn’t a defense. By criticizing the judiciary as less than impartial, the book represents an attack on the legitimacy of a paternalistic ruling elite.

“The criticism makes the offence, whether true or false… It's an act of silencing,” says Mr. Au, who is among a tiny band of Singaporeans who publicly oppose the death penalty.

Singapore imposes a mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and has the world’s highest per capita rate of executions, according to Amnesty International. The actual number of people hanged is a state secret. In 2005, Singapore’s chief executioner – the ‘Jolly Hangman’ – told Shadrake that he’d executed about 1,000 people since 1959.

The government has denied that Shadrake is being prosecuted because of his opposition to the death penalty. “It is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are [the issue],” the police said, according to Bloomberg.

In his book, Shadrake argues that the poor and uneducated are put to death while well-connected drug dealers and foreigners from countries with diplomatic clout are spared. Many of his arguments echo those in the US debate over capital punishment, including inadequate legal aid.

But he also investigates the 2003 conviction of Vignes Mourthi, a Malaysian factory worker, for selling heroin to an undercover cop. It later emerged that the narcotics officer had raped a woman and then tried to bribe her not to press charges. During his trial, the defense was not told of the pending investigation of the officer, whose testimony helped secure the conviction. Mourthi said a friend had tricked him into carrying the drugs.

The officer was later found guilty of corruption and jailed, but only after Mourthi’s execution, says Shadrake, who calls it a miscarriage of justice. “This is judicial murder, cold-blooded murder,” he says.

"Baseless allegations" or an inconvenient truth?

In defense of the system, judicial spokesperson Li Jin Haw says that Singapore must protect its courts from "baseless allegations that seek to undermine public confidence" in their integrity and independence.

Ravi, Shadrake’s lawyer, is currently seeking clemency for another Malaysian sentenced last year to death by hanging. He also defended Mourthi during his trial and appeal process and has kept in touch with the executed man’s father.

On Aug. 10, the father and a group of Malaysian lawyers filed a petition at Singapore’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur seeking a posthumous exoneration of Mourthi. Ravi accompanied them, and pressed the case of his latest death-row client.

Undaunted by the challenge of defending Shadrake, Ravi sees a bigger goal. “We’re putting the entire judiciary on trial,” he says.

Meanwhile, Shadrake’s book is selling well in neighboring Malaysia. Its original print run of 2,000 has long sold out. Most of the buyers, says Shadrake, are Singaporeans whose interest has been pricked by his arrest.

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