(New York) - The Singapore government should exonerate a British author who was convicted for contempt of court for his criticism of Singapore's justice system, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 9, 2010, the Singapore high court will impose a criminal sentence against Alan Shadrake, a 76-year-old writer who was convicted on November 3 for "scandalizing the judiciary" in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which criticizes bias in the application of Singapore's mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking.
Singapore's attorney general brought the contempt charges on the grounds that "public confidence in the Singapore Judiciary cannot be allowed, in any way, to be tarnished or diminished by any contumacious behaviour." The defendant contended that the book amounted to "fair criticism on matters of compelling public interest," as provided under article 14 of the Singapore Constitution. Shadrake faces possible imprisonment as well as fines.
"Singapore is further damaging its poor reputation on free expression by shooting the messenger bearing bad news," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Cases like this only strengthen the allegations that Shadrake made in his book."
In his ruling, the high court judge rejected "fair criticism" arguments and disputed the contention that Shadrake's conclusions were based on extensive research of case and court records and interviews with Singapore's now-retired chief executioner, police officers, lawyers, and death-penalty opponents. He found 11 statements in Once a Jolly Hangman in contempt because, "These statements are made without any rational basis, or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsehood." His written judgment concluded that, "We [judges] are constitutionally bound to protect every citizen's right to engage in such debate.... But when such debate goes beyond the limits of fair criticism the law will step in."
Shadrake is also under investigation for criminal defamation following a complaint brought by the government-directed Singapore Media Development Authority.
"There is a long history of Singapore's government using criminal defamation charges to gag and bankrupt critics," Robertson said. "Criticism of the government should never be resolved in a criminal court - the authorities should drop the charges."
In a statement this year to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression reiterated that governments should decriminalize defamation and "promote a culture of tolerance regarding criticism, which is essential in any democratic society."
Shadrake's treatment in custody raised due process concerns. At 6 a.m. on July 18, four plainclothes officers arrested Shadrake at his hotel room and took him away for two days of interrogation, during which he was denied access to counsel. Late in the day on July 19, he was released on bail.
Shadrake rejected an offer of mitigation from the Attorney General's Office in exchange for an "unreserved apology in qualified terms." The Attorney General's Office said that it viewed the rejection as an "aggravating fact" against Shadrake. The offer of mitigation in return for an apology was repeated at the trial's conclusion.
"Those facing the gallows in Singapore owe a great debt of gratitude to Alan Shadrake for exposing serious problems in the justice system," Robertson said. "The government should be impartially and transparently investigating these problems, not the man who brought them to their attention."