Singapore officials should cease using criminal defamation and contempt laws to silence government critics, Human Rights Watch said on 29 July.
The arrest of Alan Shadrake, the 75-year-old British author of Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, a critical review of Singapore’s death penalty law and its administration, further narrows the space for reporting and analysis of issues the government prefers to keep under tight control, Human Rights Watch said.
On 16 July, the day before the book launch, the Media Development Authority, responsible for regulation of Singapore’s media and publishing industry, filed a police complaint against Shadrake for criminal defamation and contempt of court. The defamation charge is still under investigation.
On the same day, Singapore’s attorney general submitted an affidavit saying that Shadrake should be “committed to prison or receive such other punishment … for his contempt of court … for bringing into existence, publication and distribution of the Book which contains passages that scandalise the Singapore Judiciary.”
Supporting documents add that passages “undermine the authority of the Singapore courts and public confidence in the administration of justice…” If convicted, Shadrake faces a potential two-year sentence and fines.
“Free speech is an endangered species in Singapore,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s sadly predictable that the government did not hesitate to threaten prosecution, fines, and imprisonment against an author whose views run contrary to its own.”
Authorities arrested Shadrake, a death penalty opponent, on 18 July, seized his passport, and released him on bail the following day. The court hearing on the contempt charge is set for 30 July, but in the interim the 75-year-old author has been subjected to several days of police interrogation without benefit of counsel. Shadrake stated that the lengthy interrogation sessions left him exhausted, and his lawyer reported that he had been placed on a heart monitor.
Once a Jolly Hangman is based on interviews with a longtime executioner at Changi Prison who has now retired and with dozens of lawyers and death penalty opponents. Shadrake also reviewed years of court case files. He is outspoken in his suggestion that Singapore death penalty sentencing decisions are not always made through impartial and independent examination of the alleged crimes.
Human Rights Watch considers criminal penalties for defamation to be disproportionate and unduly harmful to freedom of expression. Many states have abandoned such laws, recognising that civil defamation is generally adequate to protect the reputation of others.
Scandalising the court, the contempt charge applied in Shadrake’s case, is a relic of British colonial law no longer in use in the UK or in other commonwealth countries such as Brunei, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Canada, but retained in Singapore. And although Singapore’s constitution protects free expression, it also specifically protects against contempt of court.
Another well known case was that of the academic Christopher Lingle and the International Herald Tribune, who were fined for contempt when Singapore’s High Court deemed that a reference in a 7 October 1994 op-ed article to “intolerant regimes” and a “compliant judiciary” could only refer to Singapore. In the 2009 case of Attorney-General v. Hertzberg, the High Court rejected the proposition that contempt had to pose a “real risk” to the administration of justice and affirmed that conviction could be based merely on the “inherent tendency” of words to suggest bias, impropriety, or other judicial wrongdoing.
“All the government’s action will do is jail yet another author, while ensuring that Shadrake’s book will be a best seller outside Singapore, most likely in Southeast Asia’s airport bookstores” Robertson said.
Although media reports state the book is not banned in Singapore, it is apparently hard to purchase because the government has advised bookstores not to stock it.
The death penalty is a touchy issue for Singapore officials, who rigorously defend the state’s mandatory death penalty for murder, treason, and some 20 drug-related offences. The latest high-profile case on Singapore’s death row involves a Malaysian, Yong Vui Kong, due to be executed in August for a drug-related offense committed when he was 19. Singapore refuses to make public statistics on executions in the city-state, but is believed to have one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel, inhumane, and irreversible nature.
Singapore’s drug law, which carries a mandatory death penalty for some offences, also fails to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said. The mandatory nature of this penalty effectively obstructs judges from considering the circumstances of a case or handing down lighter sentences. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has stated that the death penalty should under no circumstances be mandatory by law, regardless of the charges involved.
“If the government is truly concerned with protecting its reputation, it could do better than to jail authors and execute drug offenders,” Robertson said. “Abandoning criminal punishment for defamation and prosecutions for criticising the judiciary would be a good start.”