Singapore trial for British contempt case journalist

A British journalist who is alleged to have made “baseless” attacks on the Singapore judiciary went on trial for contempt today in a case which could see him jailed.

There were at least 14 statements in Alan Shadrake’s book about the death penalty, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock”, which constituted a direct attack on the judiciary, the High Court was told by Hema Subramanian, a lawyer from the Attorney General’s Chambers.

These statements implied that Singapore’s courts succumbed to political and economic pressure, were biased against the poor and were being used to suppress the government’s political opponents.

The Attorney General has indicated that he seeks a penalty of no less than six months in prison for 75-year-old Mr Shadrake, arguing that he should receive a jail term of sufficient duration to be commensurate with the gravity of his contempt.

Three days have been set aside for the trial.

Subramanian told the court in her opening statement that comments in the statements in the book were “baseless, unwarranted attacks… that directly attacked the Singapore judiciary”.

She also characterised the allegations as “outrageous and offensive” and “irresponsible”.

Contempt of court in Singapore can be punished by a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

The title of the book “not just criticises but impugns the Singapore judiciary”, Subramanian added.

Shadrake’s book contains a profile of Darshan Singh, the former chief executioner at Singapore’s Changi Prison who, he reports, executed about 1,000 men and women between 1959 until his retirement in 2006.

The author has also interviewed local human rights activists, lawyers and former police officers on various cases involving capital punishment.

Shadrake, who is based in Malaysia, was arrested in Singapore when he was in the city-state in July to launch the book.

He is on bail but his passport has been impounded to ensure that he does not leave the country.

His lawyer, M Ravi, argued in his opening statement that the book was “a serious-minded and compassionate examination of the death penalty in Singapore”.

The charges – which were based on selected lines in the book – “strike one as being somewhat hypersensitive”, he told the court, adding that the judiciary would be made to seem “like fragile flowers” if they were called upon constantly to adjudicate complaints brought by an over-zealous Attorney General.

“Only by reading the book by its entirety can one properly determine how a reader would understand and interpret the selected quotations,” he said.

Singapore’s judiciary ranked highly in the global index and did not lack confidence in its own abilities or in its capacity for independence and impartiality, he added.

In addition, while the republic’s Media Development Authority had not tried to ban the book, its efforts to restrict its availability within the republic had led to its becoming a best-seller at airports in the region and in neighbouring Malaysia, he said.

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