When rights can mean life and death

Chee Soon Juan

“Are you Dr Chee Soon Juan?” an elderly woman asked tentatively.

“I need to talk to you,” she continued as she confirmed my identity. “I have been found guilty of poisoning my husband. But I was forced into confessing. The officer who questioned me was very harsh.”

“She was not allowed to call me when she was at the station,” her son jumped in. “She couldn’t even have a lawyer present unlike in Hong Kong or London.” The following day the media reported on the case (here).
This is a little known fact in Singapore. Most people are not aware that if you are called up for questioning by the police, you don’t have the right to a counsel while you are being interrogated. And if you are forced into confessing to the crime, in its exceedingly difficult to get the court to accept your retraction of the confession and that it was made under duress.

This seemed to be the case when District Judge Ng Peng Hong threw out Madam Fong Quay Sim’s (pictured above) defence  that she was forced into confessing that she had poisoned her husband by lacing his food and drink with arsenic.

The 68-year-old granny said during the trial that Station Inspector Faisal Sheik Abdul had pressured her into signing the confession by interrogating her in a very harsh manner. Judge Ng concluded that “there was no intense interrogation”, threw out Mdam Fong’s defence and convicted her. Sentencing was postponed.

Is Mdm Fong telling the truth? How did the Judge know that there was no intense interrogation? He had only the word of the interrogation officer. Which raises another question: Would the police sink so low as to force confessions from suspects?

They have in the past.

In 1989, Mr Zainal Kuning was charged together with two accomplices, brothers Mohd Ismail and Salahuddin Ismail, for savagely stabbing a coffee shop caretaker to death. During the trial the prosecution produced a signed statement from Mr Zainal confessing to the crime.

At the hearing Mr Zainal retracted his confession and contended that he was forced into signing it. He said that he was denied food and drink for several hours when he was questioned, and claimed that he was repeatedly marched to the toilet where he was drenched, and then made to stand on a chair under the air-conditioner holding two telephone books with arms outstretched. 

The accused even said that at one point, an officer grabbed his hair and banged him against the wall. After 24 hours, the accused gave in and confessed.

Rather fortuitously, however, during the three years in remand awaiting trial, Mr Zainal learned from one of his fellow inmates that the inmate had overheard a man by the name of Man Semput boasting how he had killed the caretaker. He even showed off the scars on his chest when the victim threw boiling water at him.

Mr Zainal engaged the late J B Jeyaretnam as counsel. Jeyaretnam argued that the police had no evidence linking his client to the murder scene. There was only the confession which his client had said was forced out of him.

Hight Court Judge (the late) T S Sinnathuray rejected Jeyaretnam’s argument and like, Judge Ng Peng Hong in Mdm Fong’s case, ruled that the confession was made voluntarily.

During the late stage of the trial, the police managed to locate a man by the name of Mohd Sulaiman aka Man Semput. Fingerprints lifted at the scene of crime confirmed that Mr Sulaiman was their man, not Mr Zainal.

DPP Bala Reddy had no choice but to withdraw the prosecution’s case.

After more than three years in prison and coming close to death, Mr Zainal and the Ismail brothers walked free.

The three men subsequently sued the police officer who interrogated them and accused the police of torture, malicious prosecution and defamation. They lost. The media gave scant coverage to the matter.

Mr Chris Lydgate, in his book Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent, chronicled the case. He wrote: 

What was more perplexing was the wall of silence surrounding the case…The entire country, it seemed, was unwilling or unable to to discuss the issue. The trial might as well never have happened.

This leads me back to my original point. How is it that suspects can be left with police interrogators for questioning during which confessions can be involuntarily extracted with no witnesses around? How can judges accept such an arrangement?

Abuses by police officers who are under pressure to deliver results can, and have been shown to, occur. Without a lawyer present during interrogation, suspects are at the mercy of their captors. Innocent people like Zainal Kuning, Mohd Ismail and Salahuddin Ismail can be victimised.

In the present case, did Mdm Fong really poison her husband? Did Inspector Faisal force her to confess? Only Mdm Fong and Mr Faisal know.

Here comes the million-dollar question: Why not remove all doubt by ensuring that suspects have lawyers and/or witnesses present during interrogation? If the evidence is strong enough the suspect may want to voluntarily confess on the advice of his/her lawyer. At the very least, accusations of confession under duress can be eliminated.

Such butchery of due process must be reviewed without which we could be wrongly convicting innocent people and even sentencing them to their deaths. With the mandatory death penalty in play in Singapore, such a review is all the more urgent.   

Calling Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Law Society and Singaporean lawyers…

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