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The innocent man who was nearly hanged

The following is an extract from Yawning Bread:

The prosecution’s case against Zainal Kuning appeared watertight. They had a confession from him that he had stabbed to death Ang Chye, 65, a caretaker of a Yishun coffeeshop, on 2 February 1989, in what was alleged to be a bungled burglary. Zainal fit the profile of a likely burglar — a manual labourer, aged 30. He must have needed money.

He was accused of the murder alongside his friend Salahuddin Ismail. Salahuddin’s brother, Mohmad Bashir Ismail, was also charged with murder originally, but had his charge reduced to burglary.

At the trio’s trial, however, Zainal denied that his confession was voluntarily given. He claimed that he had been tortured and police officers had led him to believe that his accomplices had already fingered him as the one who had stabbed the caretaker and that if he confessed, he might get a lesser sentence.

Unfortunately, it is quite common for defendants to claim that their confessions were extracted through torture and generally courts are skeptical. The police officers involved strenuously denied mistreating him. Justice T S Sinnathuray ruled that the confession was voluntary, and with that, Zainal’s fate was virtually sealed.

This case is recounted in Chapter One of a little-known book Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent, by Chris Lydgate, 2003. I should thank the Singapore Democratic Party for a brief reference to this case on their website — this was what led me to look up the book and the Straits Times’ stories myself.

Pages 5 and 6 of Chapter One describe  the torture Zainal claimed to have suffered. I shall spare readers the chilling details. Suffice it to say, it must have been severe enough to get someone to sign a confession that could lead straight to the hangman’s noose.

Other than the confession, however, the prosecution had no physical evidence that it was Zainal and Salahuddin who murdered the elderly man, or that they were even there at the coffeeshop that night. Despite this, the defendants’ chances looked extremely slim.

Continue reading here.

Further reading here.