The trial of Alan Shadrake, the British author charged for contempt of court over his book on Singapore’s death penalty challenging the integrity and independence of the city’s judiciary, was adjourned today.
Justice Quentin Loh gave M. Ravi, Shadrake’s lawyer, two weeks to file an affidavit. Ravi had asked for a month’s adjournment to file a defense of “fair criticism and fair comment.” Ravi said he needs to consult with various government bodies and other parties about their views and Shadrake’s medical conditions.
The proceedings are for “the making and publication of statements attacking the independence” of the Singapore judiciary, David Chong, chief counsel of the Attorney-General’s civil division, said at the hearing in Singapore’s High Court.
Shadrake, 75, is also being investigated for criminal defamation by Singapore authorities. His book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock,” suggests that the government “succumbs to political and economic pressures” in meting out the death penalty, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said in court papers.
The book also “insinuates that the Singapore judiciary is a tool of the People’s Action Party to muzzle political dissent” through the award of “heavy damages in defamation actions brought without legal basis,” the Attorney General’s office said in the court papers. The book contains comments that imply the Singapore judiciary was “guilty of impropriety” by being “biased particularly against the weak, poor or less educated,” according to the papers.
Shadrake, who suffers from a heart condition and hypertension, has been “put to severe stress,” because of the trial and criminal defamation investigation, Ravi said.
The Attorney-General’s office sent Shadrake a letter asking the author to apologize by July 29, Ravi said yesterday. “They said that this would go towards mitigating his offense,” the lawyer said. Shadrake is seeking expert legal advice on the contents of the letter, Ravi said.
Shadrake can “tender an unreserved apology in unqualified terms,” Chong said in court today. “Justification is no defense” for contempt of court, Chong said.
“Singapore uses criminal defamation laws to silence critics of government policies,” Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director Donna Guest said. “If Singapore aspires to be a global media city, it needs to respect global human rights standards for freedom of expression.”
The Singapore police have said that Shadrake’s anti-death penalty views are not the issue in its investigations. The city- state, which has one of the world’s lowest crime rates according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, imposes a death penalty for offenses including murder and drug trafficking.
“It is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are,” the police said. “Those who disagree with our position have presented their arguments and as a matter of principle, we respect their right to hold such opposing views, as we hope they do ours.”
Singapore in 2008 expanded the scope of free speech including allowing outdoor public demonstrations without police permits at designated areas and eased restrictions on political films. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August 2008 the moves were to “liberalize our society, widen the space for expression and participation.”
“One incident could undermine our racial harmony and confidence in Singapore, but we have to move away from this total ban and find ways to allow people to let off steam a little bit more, but safely,” Lee said then.
Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution allows freedom of speech, assembly and association. Still, the constitution provides exceptions to the freedoms if the exercise of those rights affects the security of the city state, relations with other countries, contempt of court and public order.
Contempt of court carries a jail sentence, a fine, or both. No maximum penalty has been specified under Singapore’s constitution, according to the Attorney General’s office.
In March 2009, Singapore’s High Court fined a senior Wall Street Journal editor S$10,000 ($7,300) for the publication of three articles that the city-state’s government said showed contempt of its judiciary. Three activists were sentenced to between seven and 15 days in prison for wearing t-shirts with pictures of a kangaroo dressed as a judge in another contempt of court lawsuit.
The case is Attorney-General vs Alan Shadrake OS720/2010 in the Singapore High Court.