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(New York) - On April 11, 2011, the Singapore Court of Appeal will hear the case of Alan Shadrake, a British author whose book criticized the Singaporean judiciary. The outcome of Shadrake's appeal of his contempt of court conviction could have important implications for free expression in Singapore, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Singapore High Court found Shadrake guilty on November 3, 2010, of "scandalizing the judiciary" by suggesting in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, that Singapore's mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking offenses is not always equitably applied. Shadrake alleged that implementation of the death penalty for some 20 such offenses is subject to political and economic pressures, including from the ruling People's Action Party, that discriminate against the poor, the weak, or the less-educated.

"Singapore officials egregiously violated the right to free expression by prosecuting Shadrake for daring to suggest that the government doesn't have it all right all the time," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government seems intent on trying to discredit both the message and the messenger."

On July 16, 2010, the day before the scheduled launch of Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore's attorney general submitted an affidavit recommending prosecution of Shadrake for writing and promoting a book which contained passages that "scandalize the Singapore Judiciary." The charge of "scandalizing the court" is a judicial anachronism from Singapore's British colonial past. The law was once prevalent throughout British Commonwealth countries, but a number have long since discarded it, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and Brunei Darussalam.

The court that convicted Shadrake ruled that "the authority of the court and public confidence in the administration of justice" would be compromised if Shadrake was acquitted. In its decision, and actions during the trial, the court appeared to have little interest in the substance of Shadrake's research, accumulated through study of court documents and case files, and extensive interviews with dozens of lawyers, death penalty opponents, police officers, and even the retired chief executioner at Changi Prison where the hangings took place.

The high court also dismissed the defense's argument that Shadrake's book amounted to "fair criticism on matters of compelling public interest," as provided for under article 14 of the Singapore Constitution. Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison plus a SGD20,000 (US$15,865) fine and court costs. On several occasions, the attorney general's office suggested that a sincere and "unreserved" apology by Shadrake might mitigate his punishment, but a refusal to apologize could be held against him.

Shadrake's book has helped to pierce the secrecy surrounding application of the death penalty, statistics on those put to death, and related issues. Singapore is reported to have one of the world's highest per capita execution rates. In its February 2011 National Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review, Singapore defended its use of capital punishment and claimed the death penalty for trafficking was a major factor in keeping drug syndicates out of Singapore.

Singapore's death penalty has received particular criticism, including by the UN expert on extrajudicial executions, because of mandatory death sentences for certain offenses. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel, inhumane, and irreversible nature.

Singaporean laws and policies on freedom of expression, assembly, and association sharply limit peaceful criticism of the government. Time and time again, they have been used to thwart development of dissenting voices and opposition political parties. Censorship extends to broadcast and electronic media, films, videos, music, sound recordings, and computer games. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires yearly registration and permits authorities to limit circulation of foreign papers that "engage in the domestic politics of Singapore."

Human Rights Watch urged governments to raise their concerns about Singapore's poor record on freedom of expression, as well as freedom of association and assembly, when Singapore appears for its Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 6.

"Alan Shadrake has done a service to Singapore by pointing out the failings in its application of justice," Robertson said. "It's in Singapore's interest for the justice system to recognize that."

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