A justice system to protect the strong or the weak?

Gerald Giam

Punishing only the sellers sends a wrong message that our criminal justice system favours the rich and powerful over the poor.

This week, the Singapore courts sentenced two Indonesian men to jail and fined them for selling their kidneys to Singapore residents in two unrelated cases.

According to Channel NewsAsia, 26-year-old Sulaiman Damanik and 27-year-old Toni pleaded guilty to agreeing to sell their kidneys to two patients in Singapore.

Sulaiman was sentenced to two weeks’ jail and a $1,000 fine. Toni was sentenced to a jail term of three and a half months and a fine of $2,000.

Toni had already sold his kidney to an Indonesian woman, Juliana Soh, for over $29,000, while Sulaiman had intended to sell his kidney for $23,700 to CK Tang’s executive chairman Tang Wee Sung.

This issue has aroused much debate over the past week over the ethical implications of organ trading.

Organ trading is illegal – period

One glaring fact seems to have been largely overlooked: the organ sellers — poor, rural Indonesians — were punished with the full force of the law, while their rich buyers may not even face prosecution.

The non-prosecution of the buyers is not because the law does not cover the act of buying another person’s organs.

According to the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA), Section 14:

(1) Subject to this section, a contract or arrangement under which a person agrees, for valuable consideration, whether given or to be given to himself or to another person, to the sale or supply of any organ or blood from his body or from the body of another person, whether before or after his death or the death of the other person, as the case may be, shall be void.

(2) A person who enters into a contract or arrangement of the kind referred to in subsection (1) and to which that subsection applies shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

Translated to plain English, it means that both sellers and buyers of human organs are subject to the same punishment of up to $10,000 fine or 1 year in jail.

Why then has the law not been executed in the case of the two buyers of the organs?

When contacted by Channel NewsAsia, the Ministry of Health was not able to say whether the buyers in the illegal organ trading case will be prosecuted. It did say, however, that investigations are still ongoing, and it will wait for the outcome before taking further action.

If indeed kidney buyers Juliana Soh and Tang Wee Sung get away without being charged, or receive a lighter sentence than the Indonesian sellers, then it would be a grave perversion of justice.

The modern justice system is meant to protect weak members of society against exploitation by the rich and powerful.

According to the Indonesian duo’s lawyer, both men came from rural areas in Medan and were poorly educated. Sulaiman was a manual labourer who had aged parents to support while Toni was a garbage collector with two children aged two and five. Both were retrenched at the start of this year. District Judge Bala Reddy said that the two men were “ripe for the picking” by syndicates which exploited their “poor and socially disadvantaged background”. (Straits Times) The judge also noted that they “had not actively solicited an offer for their kidneys”.

Judge Bala said of Sulaiman:

When he was identified by the syndicate as a potential donor, he was approached with an offer which for a person of his social and economic background would have been difficult to resist.

Some lives are more valuable than others?

It is heartbreaking to learn that there are young people who would give up their own kidneys to complete strangers, putting themselves at risk of future kidney failure and early death, for a mere $30,000 — the amount some Singaporeans would pay for a branded handbag.

One of the buyers, Tang Wee Sung, 56, runs CK Tang, one of Singapore’s oldest department stores, which was handed down to him by his late father. It is not known how much Tang is worth, but his younger brother, Tang Wee Kit, had a net worth of US$170 million and was Number 26 on Forbes’ list of the 40 richest Singaporeans in 2006.

While I sympathise with both Tang and Soh for their plight as kidney patients, not punishing them for breaking the law would send a wrong message that our criminal justice system favours the rich and powerful over the poor.

Already, the conviction of Sulaiman and Toni before there is any indication of charges being levelled against Tang and Soh has sent out a subtle message that the latter’s lives are more valuable than the former’s.

I hope that the public prosecutor and the courts will not shrink back from treating all people equally before the law.

Sketched picture from the Straits Times.

Update (July 10): Tang Wee Sung slapped with 3 charges in kidney-for-sale case. (Channel NewsAsia)

Read also:

Justice calibrated for duo in kidney sale (TODAY).

Judge warns: Organ trade won’t be condoned (Straits Times).

$22,000 for 1 kidney = 16-1/2 years of income (Straits Times).

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