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Human Rights Watch calls for Singapore to end its practice of detention without trial

Singapore’s parliament should reject proposed revisions to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act extending detention without trial and allow the law to lapse, Human Rights Watch said in a January 31, 2018 letter to members of parliament that was released today.

The proposed amendments would extend the statute, enacted as a “temporary” measure in 1955, for the 14th time. It would also eliminate the already very limited judicial review of detention orders currently permitted under Singapore law.

“Singapore’s parliament should be eliminating, not extending, a law that for six decades has been used to detain people indefinitely without trial,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing long-term detention for criminal acts on the say-so of government officials instead of prosecuting suspects in the courts has been an open invitation to serious abuse of power.”

Under section 30 of the act, the Home Affairs minister may, with the consent of the public prosecutor, order a person detained for up to 12 months if the minister is satisfied that the person “has been associated with activities of a criminal nature,” and “that it is necessary that the person be detained in the interests of public safety, peace and good order.” The president may extend the detention for up to 12 months.

There appears to be no limit to the number of times detention can be extended or the length of time a person may be detained without trial. When section 30 was introduced in 1958, the government asserted that it was a “temporary” measure necessary to combat a wave of gang-related crime that had left witnesses afraid to testify.

Detention without trial is an extreme measure that can rarely be justified under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In the exceptional circumstances in which the government can demonstrate that an individual poses a direct threat that cannot be addressed by alternative measures, prompt and regular review by a court or other independent tribunal is essential to prevent arbitrary detention.

The United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1988, provides that no one shall be kept in detention without an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a “judicial or other authority,” defined as one “whose status and tenure should afford the strongest possible guarantees of competence, impartiality and independence.”

The act does not provide for judicial review, and the bill pending before parliament would eliminate the already very limited judicial review of detention orders under Singapore law by adding a section that provides that the minister’s decision is “final.” Under the act, the only “review” of the minister’s decision is by a government-appointed advisory committee, to which the minister’s decision must be referred within 28 days. The advisory committee has no power to reverse the minister’s decision, but only to make recommendations to the president, who can cancel or confirm the order. Such executive branch “review” is not sufficiently independent to replace judicial review, Human Rights Watch said.

“While the Singaporean government claims that detention without trial is needed for a wide range of offenses to protect witnesses who are afraid to testify, other countries prosecute such cases without denying defendants their basic due process rights,” Adams said. “Singapore should finally recognize that criminal detention without trial has no place in a modern rights-respecting country.”