Can an innocent individual be sent to the gallows in Singapore?
By Rachel Zeng
According to US journalist Peter Krouse, Singapore’s Foreign Minister and Minister of Law K. Shanmugam said that “while he hasn’t done a case-by-case study, he didn’t think so” when asked if Singapore had ever executed an innocent person for drug crimes. His assistant later followed up with an email saying “I haven’t gone through the facts of each case, but I have complete faith in our judiciary”. [Source: Peter Krouse’s Facebook]
For the benefit of those who may not be able to access the link, here is a screenshot.
Let us take a good look at the following cases:
1. Vignes Mourthi – executed in September 2003
Case in brief
Vignes Mourthi was arrested together with Moorthy Angappan outside An-Nur Mosque (Singapore) in September 2001. According to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Mourthi tried to sell a packet of heroin to an undercover officer from the bureau. The undercover officer turned out to be Sgt Rajkumar.
According to Mourthi, he believed that the packages contained incense stones and insisted that he was doing Angappan, a family friend, a favour. He also stated that he had never seen heroin before and realised that the packages contained drugs only after he was arrested. In fact, he stood by his claim til his death.
An innocent person can be hanged because of procedure?
During his appeal which was struck down, lawyer M Ravi who was engaged to represent Mourthi in his appeal against his sentence, asked the then Chief Justice Yong Pung How if the public prosecutor was “still maintaining that an innocent man be hanged because of procedure”, the CJ answered “Yes, the answer is yes” (TodayOnline, archived by Think Centre, 27 Sept 2003).
In a memorandum released by Lawyers for Liberty (2010), “The key testimony on which he was convicted was the evidence of one Sgt Rajkumar who arrested Vignes”. The evidence produced was a handwritten note produced by the key witness Sgt Rajkumar, which was undated and bore no signature (Shadrake, 2010, p. 159). The note was apparently a record of a conversation that had taken place between Mourthi and Sgt Rajkumar, which stated that Mourthi knew that the packages contained heroin. However, while giving testimony during the trial as the prosecution’s key witness, Sgt Rajkumar was facing investigations for rape, sodomy and bribery by the authorities. In view of this fact, the credibility and integrity of Sgt Rajkumar was (and still is) highly questionable.
2. Iwuchukuwu Amara Tochi – executed on 26 January 2007
Case in brief
Tochi was arrested on 28 November 2004, at Changi Airport in Singapore while in transit. He was found carrying one hundred capsules of diamorphine, amounting to 727.02 grammes in total. When questioned, Tochi claimed that the capsules were African herbs that tasted like chocolate, and went on to swallow a capsule. His arrest led to the arrest of another African drug figure, Okeke Nelson Malachy.
In his statement, Tochi stated that he was approached by “Mr Smith” who had tasked him to deliver the capsules of “African herbs” to a friend in Changi Airport in return for his help in obtaining a visa in Dubai where Tochi intended to pursue a football career in.
Sentenced to death despite the lack of direct evidence stating that he knew about the drugs
Justice Kan Ting Chiu noted in his judgment (2005) at paragraph 42 SGHC 233 that “There was no direct evidence that [Amara Tochi] knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that Smith had told him they contained diamorphine, or that he had found that out of his own.“
Nevertheless, Tochi was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death. He was hanged at dawn in Changi Prison on 26 January 2007.
3. Rozman bin Jusoh – executed on 12 April 1996
Case in brief
(Taken from this TOC article)
Rozman bin Jusoh was arrested on 25 November 1993 in an entrapment exercise carried out by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB). The day before he was arrested, he was approached by an undercover officer asking for cannabis. Rozman told the officer that he did not have any. The officer then insisted that Rozman find some cannabis for him.
The next day, the same officer approached Rozman again with the same request. This time, Rozman told the officer to wait while he asked among his friends. One of his friends agreed to supply the drugs as requested and arranged to hand them to the officer later that evening at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Rozman placed the plastic bag, which contained the drugs, on a chair at the table where he and the officer were seated. The officer stood up and walked to the counter to order a drink, and so did Rozman, leaving the plastic bag unattended. The officer then gave a signal, upon which other CNB officers entered the outlet and arrested Rozman.
Rozman was charged with trafficking in 1040.8g of cannabis. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, trafficking in more than 500g of cannabis attracts the mandatory death penalty.
Evidence pointing to the fact that Rozman was intellectually subnormal
1. According to the CNB interpreter who assisted in recording the statements, Rozman was extremely slow and had difficulties answering simple questions such as how many siblings he had.
2. A clinical psychologist who had examined Rozman found that he had an IQ of 74, which was borderline. According to her observations, she stated that Rozman could be easily manipulated by others and would not think deeply about the consequences of his actions. She also thought that Rozman might not be capable of discerning right from wrong.
3. The trial judge, Justice M.P.H. Rubin, also noticed Rozman’s oral testimony was “punctuated with long pauses and was generally delivered in a halting manner”. At times, it was “hazy and disoriented”. He also noted that Rozman’s “demeanour, inflexion and his swaying body movements…at times suggested that he was apparently oblivious to the seriousness of the charges facing him”. Furthermore, he did not think that Rozman’s subnormal intellect constituted unsoundness of mind, which would have been a full defence to the charge. However, given his subnormal intellect and the way the CNB officer had acted, he did not think it could be said that Rozman had intended to traffick in the drugs.
Rozman was then sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment for the offence of drug possession as the judge thought that “it would be unsafe for the court to proceed to convict him on the charge of trafficking”.
The appeal that led to Rozman’s death
Dissatisfied, the prosecution appealed. The Court of Appeal, presided over by Chief Justice Yong Pung How and Justices of Appeal M. Karthigesu and L.P. Thean, disagreed with Justice Rubin’s decision in the High Court. The Court of Appeal judges took the view that Rozman’s subnormal intellect was not sufficient to negate his intention to traffick in the drugs. They thought that while Rozman “may have been easily induced or instigated” by the CNB officer to sell the drugs, this fact and his subnormal intellect could be taken into account only in mitigating the sentence. However, they noted that since the sentence was mandatory, “such considerations would only be relevant elsewhere”. Rozman was therefore convicted on the charge of trafficking.
Rozman bin Jusoh was hanged till death on 12 April 1996.
CURRENTLY ON DEATH ROW
1. Cheong Chun Yin
Case in brief
In June 2008, Chun Yin arrived in Singapore’s Changi Airport. He had just come from Myanmar carrying a black suitcase. Chun Yin believed that the suitcase contained gold bars that he was supposed to be smuggling for a friend who wanted to evade tax. He handed the bag over to a woman at the airport before leaving. He was later arrested when he alighted from a taxi in Arab Street. At the time of arrest, he did not have the suitcase with him. He was then taken to a flat where the suitcase was found. The “gold bars” that he thought had been hidden in the lining turned out to be 2.7kg of heroin.
Chun Yin was convicted and sentenced to death under the Mandatory Death Penalty stipulated in the Misuse of Drugs Act by High Court Judge Choo Han Teck. In his written judgment, Judge Choo stated, “I did not find his [Cheong] testimony convincing and I was of the view that his evidence did not create any reasonable doubt in my mind that he might not have known that he was carrying heroin.”
The Court of Appeal dismissed Cheong’s appeal in October 2010. Here is the judgment from the Court of Appeal. Chun Yin is currently sitting on death row, awaiting the President’s response regarding his clemency appeal.
Was the investigation thorough enough?
During his interrogation, Chun Yin cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers and gave them the name, physical description and phone numbers of his contact, a man who had gone by the name of Lau De. However, the CNB did not make any effort to investigate.
According to Judge Choo Han Teck, “It was immaterial that the CNB did not make adequate efforts to trace Lau De or check on his cell-phones. The absence of any trace of Lau De was not taken as evidence in favour of or against either accused.” [Judgment]
2. Roslan bin Bakar
Case in brief
Roslan was arrested on 18 July 2008 and subsequently charged with trafficking 96.07 grams of diamorphine and 76.37 grams of methamphetamine. When Roslan was arrested, no drugs were found on him.
Roslan was found guilty and sentenced to death on 22 April 2010. His appeal has been dismissed by the Court of Appeal on 17 March 2011 and he is currently awaiting the decision on his clemency appeal which was submitted on 28 June 2011.
Prosecution’s case relied on the testimonies of three men
The prosecution’s case relied on the testimonies of three of the four men who were at the scene. Norzainy bin Zainal was the only person who testified that Roslan was not at the scene on 14 June 2008. Besides that, his mother and step-brother Shamsubari stood as his alibi stating that Roslan was at home and then at the Turf club on the day of the alleged crime.
Not a single CNB officer had given evidence
During the trial, his lawyer submitted that although officials from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) had been monitoring vehicles used on the day of the alleged crime, “not a single CNB officer had given evidence” that Roslan had been at the scene.
Testimony given in exchange of a lighter sentence?
During the cross examination of Narudahu Putra bin Nordin, one of the men who had initially confirmed Roslan’s involvement, he admitted that “the reduction of the [capital] charge acted as an inducement for him to testify against Roslan”. He said that the instructions from his lawyers were that “when he take the offer [of the reduced charge], he had to attend Court hearing as what he was doing now”.
As the Minister of Law and a trained lawyer, Mr K. Shanmugam should have taken the effort to look into each and every case, especially those that might incur capital punishment. Having faith in the judiciary is not enough because the investigation process needs to be taken into account as well. Furthermore, the above-mentioned cases were drug related. Under Section 17 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, any person who carries the amount (or more) of controlled drugs listed, shall be presumed to possess them for the purpose of drug trafficking and to be sentenced with the mandatory death penalty unless proven otherwise.
As the death penalty is an irreversible process, and because Mr K. Shanmugam had publicly defended Singapore’s use of the death penalty, I am appalled by the ignorance and lack of responsibility that Mr K. Shanmugam seems to be portraying here.
My personal message to Mr K. Shanmugam: No matter how uneducated, ignorant or poor, these criminals are human beings with flesh and blood, with pounding hearts, who eat, sleep and breathe the way you and I do. They might not be the cream of the crop but they do have families who love them. How can you be so irresponsible, while supporting the use of the death penalty in Singapore? We might have already executed many who are innocent and I am not sure that I really buy your ‘ignorance’, but please, kindly be more involved in the capital cases we have here in Singapore. You are afterall, too well paid and too qualified to be ‘ignorant’.