This week the Singapore government is taking on a 75-year-old British author for publishing a book arguing that the country’s secretive but mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking is unevenly applied against poor and marginalized defendants while the wealthy or well-connected are spared.
If the past is any precedent, Alan Shadrake, who wrote “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock” and had the bad judgment to go to Singapore to publicize the book, can expect to be jailed.
Shadrake’s case was postponed on Monday for two weeks to give his lawyer time to file an affidavit of “fair criticism and fair comment.”
The lawyer, M. Ravi, said he needed to consult with various government bodies and other parties about their views and Shadrake’s medical condition.
Singapore, whose justice system has been heavily criticized for its political bias, has never lost a case like this, and unless something totally unexpected happens, it won’t lose this one.
In that regard, Shadrake’s trial highlights not just the controversy over Singapore’s use of the death penalty against traffickers in minute amounts of drugs, but the broader issue of freedom of speech in a city-state where sticking your head up is an invitation to get it shot off.
A wide range of human rights groups say the Singapore courts are used as a tool to silence critics.
Any political or press criticism of the government results automatically in defamation suits that have been unanimously won by the prosecution and fines and charges that have bankrupted the opposition and sent major news organizations scrambling for cover.
In July 2008, the International Bar Association issued a 72-page report concluding that “Singapore cannot continue to claim that civil and political rights must take a back seat to economic rights, as its economic development is now of the highest order.
“In the modern era of globalization, isolationist policies and attitudes are no longer tenable.”
For his part, Shadrake remains defiant. For his first hearing in the High Court, he entered the building holding up his fingers in a V for Victory salute and shouting “Freedom and democracy for Singapore.”
The government has since backed away from the criminal defamation charge, although it hangs in the air as a threat, and Shadrake was charged with a species of contempt of court called “scandalizing the judiciary,” in other words, writing something that could make the court system look bad.
In the months since his arrest he has been granting interviews, basking in his demi-celebrity, repeatedly reiterating his intent to fight the charge and undergoing an angioplasty for a blocked aorta.
While the Singaporean government has offered Shadrake leniency if he would purge himself of the alleged contempt by apologizing, he has so far refused to do so.
He is being defended by perhaps Singapore’s most prominent defense lawyer, Ravi. Sometimes, it seems that the defendant in every high-profile death penalty or free expression case in the city-state is represented by Ravi.
For a nation with a population of more than five million, Singapore has just some 3,500 lawyers.
Critics argue that young Singaporeans don’t enter the law because they see the profession as a closed shop in which a handful of loyalist firms land the lucrative government contracts and litigation work; others, including Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, bemoan a general lack of local legal talent.
And many Singaporean lawyers seem reluctant to represent clients in politically sensitive cases.
It is not advisable, lawyers say, to practice any kind of law that brings lawyers into conflict with the government.
That can’t be said about Ravi. In the last decade, he has represented death row inmates Vignes Mourthi and Shanmugam Murugesu, whose appeals were unsuccessful, and Yong Vui Kong, whose appeal is pending.
It was Mourthi’s case that formed a major part of Shadrake’s book.
Shadrake charged that Mourthi, a 23-year-old Malaysian, was convicted on the basis of a handwritten transcript of a conversation with an undercover officer.
However, the officer faced allegations of rape, sodomy and bribery at the time he testified against Mourthi, and subsequently was jailed for 15 months on bribery charges.
Those charges were kept from the court.
Ravi has an aggressive and somewhat discursive courtroom style that can yield dividends.
In the Yong case, Ravi backed the government into a corner, forcing it to admit that the president of Singapore does not make an independent judgment on clemency petitions but merely executes the will of the cabinet.
David Chong Gek Sian, the prosecutor, is not the usual hard-bitten career prosecutor from central casting.
Rather, he looks and acts like the mild-mannered law professor he was at the National University of Singapore.
He has won before, in recent years successfully pursuing the Wall Street Journal Asia on a similar charge.
Justice Quentin Loh Sze On is hearing the case. Alan Dershowitz, the outspoken criminal defense attorney and Harvard Law School professor, has stated that he would rather defend a client before an old judge than before a new judge.
In Dershowitz’s opinion, an old judge is more likely to rule fairly while a new judge is too concerned with promotion and the potentially career-debilitating impact of freeing an unpopular defendant.
Loh is a very new judge. He was appointed a judicial commissioner in September 2009, and was promoted to judge of the High Court less than six months ago.
The Shadrake trial is his first high-profile case with political implications, and it will be absorbing to see how Loh handles the evidentiary and procedural issues Ravi will raise.
Under Singaporean law, there is no right to a jury. Loh will make the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence and, if he finds Shadrake to be in contempt, will determine the sentence.
Consequently, despite the fact that the courtroom this week will be packed with lawyers, clerks, security and reporters, it could be said that Shadrake and his defense team will be performing for an audience of one.
Editor’s note: the last paragraph was removed.