Choo Zheng Xi -
Alan Shadrake’s book “Once a Jolly Hangman” makes for uncomfortable reading. One case in particular might have made those in power uncomfortable enough to arrest Mr Shadrake on the rarely used draconian charge of criminal defamation.
A defamation action is usually instituted in civil proceedings by a person or an institution that believes its reputation has been harmed by a statement of the defendant. Even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew used a civil defamation action in pursuing his detractors in the international press and local opposition.
Criminal defamation brings the resources of the State to bear in what is essentially a question of protecting personal reputations.
In 2009, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) intervened to discontinue proceedings in a criminal defamation action on the grounds that “the law of criminal defamation is not to be resorted to lightly”. The AGC noted that in a civil action, the possibility that costs may be awarded against an unsuccessful plaintiff acts as a natural barrier to frivolous action. There is no such safeguard in criminal defamation.
The United Kingdom abolished criminal defamation in July 2009.
So what agitated the authorities enough to arrest Alan Shadrake for criminal defamation, amongst other charges?
The Vignes Mourthi case?
One possible contender is his characterization of the trial and execution of Vignes Mourthi as “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.
Vignes Mourthi was arrested on 20 September 2001 and convicted of trafficking 27.65 grams of heroin.
Mourthi’s conviction rested largely on the strength of evidence of the officer who arrested him, Sgt S Rajkumar, a senior officer of the Central Narcotics Bureau. Sgt Rajkumar was a key witness in the prosecution’s case, and Mourthi’s defense was that an incriminating piece of evidence collected by Rajkumar had been added at a much later date.
Shadrake reveals that just three days after Mourthi’s arrest, on 23 September 2001, Sgt. Rajkumar was himself arrested for allegedly handcuffing, raping and sodomizing a young woman and for subsequently bribing her to keep silent.
In the judgment convicting Rajkumar of bribery, Judge Sia Ai Kor described his actions as “so obviously corrupt by the ordinary and objective standard that he must know his conduct is corrupt”.
Shadrake points out how the ongoing case against Rajkumar was never revealed to Mourthi’s defense lawyer, and surmises that the prosecutor and other parties must have known about Rajkumar’s case but chose to keep silent.
In his book, Shadrake characterizes Mourthi’s case as groundbreaking enough to resemble the “catastrophic failures of the justice system in Britain” that contributed to the death penalty being abolished there.
If Shadrake is right, then the authorities could very well be stepping up to the criminal defamation plate to contest his version of events.