Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Singapore judiciary examined: the conviction of Alan Shadrake

Gievn Enough Rope

by Liz Gooch
posted on May 01, 2011 by South China Morning Post


The trial and conviction of Alan Shadrake, author of a book that questions the way Singapore deploys the death penalty, has done nothing for the Lion City’s reputation.

Shadrake’s book, which began as the memoirs of a hangman, morphed into an investigation of the system. Once A Jolly Hangman was first released in Malaysia, where Shadrake was living, last June. It was already available in some Singaporean bookshops when he returned to the city for the launch, on July 17, 2010.

The Saturday night book launch went smoothly and Shadrake went out afterwards, to celebrate with friends, first at a dim sum restaurant and then a karaoke bar. He went to bed at about 2.30am but there was to be no Sunday morning lie-in. At 6.30am, he says, he awoke to police banging on the door.

“I opened the door very, very slowly and they burst in like bloody commandos. Four of them to arrest little me … like I was a terrorist or something.”

The police ordered him to get dressed and took him to the Criminal Investigation Department building.

There, he says, he slept on the floor, without a blanket or pillow, in between long sessions of questioning. He was released on S$10,000 bail just before midnight on the Monday, without his passport.

[Details of police action during the arrest: here]

In his verdict, the judge found that Shadrake’s claims were made against a “selective background of truths and half-truths and sometimes outright falsehoods”. Although Shadrake admits to a couple of inaccuracies – “very minor stuff” – which, he says, he has corrected for the new edition, he stands by the book and has refused to apologise.

In statements released after Shadrake’s sentencing in November, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said it “deplores the decision to jail a man who is 76 and unwell, and whose only crime was to exercise his critical powers”, while John Kampfer, chief executive of Index on Censorship, described the case as “another example of Singapore’s very poor record on free expression”.

Jeremy Browne, minister of state at Britain’s Foreign Office, also weighed into the case, stating he was “dismayed” that Shadrake had been sentenced to six weeks’ jail “for expressing his personal views on the legal system”.

Shadrake says he knew his book was likely to cause a few ripples but he thought he would be merely barred from Singapore, not arrested.

M. Ravi, Shadrake’s lawyer and a leading human rights advocate who has represented a number of people facing the death penalty, says the sentence is among the toughest ever meted out by a Singaporean court for contempt.

“To me, it’s extremely harsh,” says Ravi, who argued during the trial that his client’s book amounted to “fair criticism”. Although he expects Shadrake’s appeal will be denied, Ravi says the authorities have shot themselves in the foot by convicting the author.

“They popularised this,” Ravi says. “The client became magnified as a result of their own prosecution against him.”

The book has not been banned in Singapore but has been withdrawn from bookshops.

Media freedom organisations, such as RWB, say there has been a number of cases in recent years where the government has taken legal action against media organisations, journalists and bloggers. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal Asia was found to be in contempt of court and fined S$25,000 for publishing two editorials and a letter by an opposition leader questioning the country’s judicial system. The same year, lawyer Gopalan Nair was sentenced to three months in prison for insulting a judge on his blog.

In the listing for last year, Singapore dropped four places on RWB’s Press Freedom Index, down to 137 out of the 178 countries ranked according to the degree of freedom afforded to journalists. This places Singapore behind countries such as Zimbabwe, Algeria and Qatar.

“No one should be convicted of a crime simply because he or she wrote a book that speaks out against a political ideology that the Singaporean government, or any government, doesn’t agree with,” says Heather Blake, RWB’s British representative. “The mentality is that they provide a very safe, clean country in which to live but with that comes all of the oppression.”

Commentators say a culture of self-censorship has developed among local mainstream publications, prompting more Singaporeans to turn to the internet for information and to voice their opinions. Sinapan Samydorai, director of Think Centre, a Singapore-based civil society-focused group, says Singaporeans are increasingly aware of the international trend towards abolishing the death penalty.

“Shadrake is inspiring young people,” he says. “I think that is what they don’t want but, with the internet and in a globalised world, it’s difficult for them.”

Dissatisfaction with the mainstream media led Andrew Loh and three friends to establish the website The Online Citizen, in 2006. Loh, the site’s editor-in-chief, says the website provides a forum for discussion of political and social issues.

“We just wanted to express ourselves,” he says.

Loh says the site’s online readership has increased in recent years, as more people go online to get “the other side of the story”.

The website, which is run by volunteers, has not escaped the glare of the authorities. Loh says it was gazetted as a political association in January, meaning it must adhere to certain regulations such as not accepting foreign funding.

“I see that as some sort of an attempt to force us to either close down or to self-censor,” he says.

Although he believes the mainstream media has devoted more coverage than usual to opposition parties in the lead-up to Saturday’s election, Loh maintains that censorship has increased.

“I don’t think space for freedom of expression has been enlarged.” he says. “I think it has been curtailed in recent years.”

The Singapore Ministry of Law disagrees.

“There are 5,500 publications, foreign newspapers and magazines in free circulation in Singapore, with nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations based [here],” according to a statement issued by the ministry. “They are free to report on all issues; the government does not dictate … what they can or cannot report. However, media freedom in a healthy democracy cannot mean we should allow and tolerate lies, smears and scurrilous allegations. [When] this has happened, the media and reporters responsible have been sued for civil defamation.”

Shadrake, who was convicted of contempt of court, is “assisting the police with investigations relating to criminal defamation”, says the ministry.


Shadrake believes it is only a matter of time before he will be behind bars – the outcome of his appeal may even have been announced as you read this. He says he will refuse to pay the fine, if it is demanded, even though that will result in an additional two weeks in prison.

Shadrake, who has received funding from supporters and human rights organisations to help cover his legal and medical bills, says he does not want to go to jail, but one can’t help thinking that a stint behind bars would provide rich material for the book he is planning to write about his trial – not to mention the publicity it would generate.

“If they want to put me in jail for this, then that’s their problem and that will come back to hurt them. I’m a very popular guy,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got the whole world behind me.”

Shadrake admits his trial has helped promote his book. A new edition will be released in Australia today and in Britain next month. It is also available online.

“If they had just ignored it, no one would have given it a second thought,” he says. “I was nobody, now I’m somebody. And it is ridiculous because I don’t like this role … I’m a reporter, I’m not an object of reporters.”

Regardless of the outcome of his appeal, Shadrake plans to keep up his campaign against the death penalty. He believes at least 36 people are on death row in Singapore, based on his discussions with lawyers involved in such cases.

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