Author who dared criticize Singapore's death penalty appeals sentence

British author Alan Shadrake returned to court Monday to appeal his six-week jail term and fine in a case that highlights the limits on free speech in Singapore.

Wong Maye-E/AP
British author Alan Shadrake speaks to the Associated Press before his court hearing on Friday, July 30, 2010 in Singapore. Shadrake vows to fight charges in Singapore related to his book on the city-state's death penalty policy, even if it lands him in jail.

Singapore fiercely guards its reputation for squeaky-clean governance. Anyone suggesting that the rich city-state’s judiciary has serious flaws can expect a stern rebuttal – or much worse.

In November, Alan Shadrake was found guilty of contempt of court over his book, "Once A Jolly Hangman," which skewers Singapore’s brand of capital punishment. He was fined 20,000 Singapore dollars and sentenced to six weeks in jail. Human rights groups complained that the verdict was harsh and unnecessary.

On Monday Mr. Shadrake was back in court, this time to appeal the verdict. He vows that he will fight his case and doesn’t care if he ends up back in a Singaporean jail.

The British author has become an unlikely symbol of resistance to Singapore’s thin-skinned elite who frequently sue their opponents for what would be considered run-of-the-mill political speech in other democracies. Although the Internet has chipped away at some of the curbs on free speech, Singaporeans remain highly circumspect in public on topics deemed sensitive by authorities.

The pros and cons of the death penalty are rarely debated in Singapore. Last year Shadrake told the Monitor that he had discovered serious mismanagements of justice in his research for the book, which contains interviews with a retired hangman.

“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,” he told the Monitor.

While Singapore doesn’t disclose the number of people that it puts to death, Amnesty International says that it leads the world in per capita executions. The retired hangman told Shadrake in 2005 that he’d executed around 1,000 people since 1959. Shadrake says he opposes the death penalty as barbaric.

Singaporean prosecutors argue that Shadrake’s book is libelous and erroneous, and told the court on Monday that the author was unrepentant and deserved to be jailed. “He should reap the consequences of his contempt,” a prosecutor said.

Indeed, Shadrake has secured a book deal in Australia and says a new edition will be published there in May, with the offending passages deleted. Depending on how his appeal goes, he may be writing his next volume in a jail cell.

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