Subordinate Court Judge Terence Chua performed a courageous act today by retreating from his position to continue with the Falungong trial in a tiny courtroom. His decision came after an unprecedented protest from the defendants.
Ms Cheng Lujin, Ms Ang Soh Yan, Ms Pang Su Chin, Ms Diana Wang, Ms Youxin, and Ms Ng Chye Huay are charged with unlawful assembly. They were distributing flyers along Orchard Road, calling for the cessation of persecution of Falungong practitioners in China. They are acting in person.
On Monday when the trial began, Judge Chua had dismissed the defendants’ appeal to change the courtroom to a bigger one. The courtroom had only eight seats which effectively ruled out anyone else from observing the trial including the public, media, and the defendants’ family members.
The six women had earlier asked another judge during the pre-trial conference to assign a bigger courtroom. This was rejected.
Seeing the unfair treatment, the six women lodged a protest by turning their backs to the judge at the commencement of the proceedings. The judge ignored this and proceeded to try the case. The defendants then started to read Falungong passages aloud thereby making continuation of the trial impossible.
“Can you stop for a few seconds? I want to know what you are reading,” Judge Chua said.
The defendants’ ignored him.
The judge then ordered the six to be sent to the courthouse lock-up. After lunch, he ordered them to be returned to court.
“Do you want to apologise for your actions?” asked Mr Chua.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” each of the six women replied. “All we want is for the court to be reasonable and allow this trial to be conducted in the open in a bigger courtroom.”
Judge Chua then cited them for contempt of court, ordering them to be jailed for two days. He also announced that he was going to convene a pre-trial conference when the defendants returned on Wednesday morning following their two days in jail.
He retired to his chambers. The Deputy Public Prosecutor, too, left.
Seeing that everyone had left, the defendants asked the police whether they could contact their family members to tell them that they were going to jail. The police turned down their requests and said that they didn’t know what was going to happen.
At this time there was confusion as no one knew quite what to expect.
Two hours later, the judge suddenly returned and recalled the DPP. He had changed his mind. There would be no pre-trial conference. Instead, the trial would resume on Wednesday morning in the same court (no. 35).
Before he left the courtroom, he told the six women: “I hope you won’t do such a thing again when you come back.”
But he didn’t wait to find out. And just as well. The defendants had decided to continue their protest if the judge insisted on not changing the courtroom.
When they returned this morning to resume the hearing, the six women found that the trial had been changed to another and bigger courtroom (no. 16). Although still small by comparison, it at least now accommodated 12 persons instead of eight in the former one and had additional seats for reporters.
After an unnecessary delay of two days, the hearing is finally underway.
This incident underscores the fact that individuals are never completely powerless. Even when facing the State with all its resources and machinery, individuals can persuade seemingly intransigent authorities to mend their ways by applying Nonviolent Action. This has been demonstrated time and time again in history.
In the present case, all the the six women wanted was for their trial to be held in a courtroom big enough to allow observers to attend. It was an entirely fair and reasonable request. They had repeatedly pleaded with the courts to use a bigger courtroom. They only undertook their civil disobedience act when their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The fact that they managed to persuade the judge to see reason and change the courtroom was a victory for both sides. The judge must be commended for his courage to do the right thing, at least in so far as his decision to change the courtroom is concerned.
This is essentially what Nonviolent Action seeks to achieve – a compromise on the part of those in power so that equity is achieved. It seeks to arrive at a win-win situation for both the rulers and the ruled.
The six defendants won for themselves a small, but significant, victory. They did this by using the only weapon at their disposal – their courage. While the courts had the power of the jail to back up its threats, the women had the power of their courage.
Courage won out as it ultimately, and always, will