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New book puts death penalty on trial

Excerpt from Alex Au’s website, Yawning Bread:

To give a new twist to an old saying: Justice unevenly applied is justice denied.

Alan Shadrake, in his new book, Once a Jolly Hangman — Singapore justice in the dock, shows how uneven it is. It’s a tour de force covering cases from the early 1990s to nearly the present, many of them ending with the prisoner meeting Darshan Singh, Singapore’s hangman for the last half-century. But some of them do not meet this fate, and therein lies the twist.

When clemency campaigns are mounted and the occasional blog takes an interest, the story centres on a particular death row prisoner and for a particular crime, and understandably so. However, the result is that while we see a particular case, we seldom have the opportunity to see how the death penalty is used across a number of years.

With the release of this book, we cannot now say we can’t take in the bigger picture. Once a Jolly Hangman allows us to compare how one case was handled with another that had similar circumstances or gravity. What emerges is a very unflattering pattern of inconsistent “justice”, the dispensation of which is compromised in three important ways:

1. When foreign governments have clout over our economic interests and are willing to use that clout, their citizens will not face the death penalty;

2. When local citizens come from rich, well-connected families, or when a case threatens to involve others from this stratum of society, a way is found to avoid having them face the death penalty or even severe penalties;

3. When the state is convinced that an accused who is poor and “low-class” is guilty, and provided that exception no. 1 above does not apply, due process is less important than putting him on the fast-track to the noose.

What this book shows is that defenders of capital punishment in Singapore have no basis to make their critical assumptions. If anything, the cases recounted by Shadrake show an unevenness, almost a capriciousness, that should make Singaporeans hang their heads in shame.

Read Alex’s full write-up on Yawning Bread.