Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham alleges lack of transparency in police investigations, possible abuse of power

Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham has called into question the transparency – or a lack thereof – in the police force’s investigations, particularly with regards to extracting information and confessions from individuals being interrogated.

He highlighted a particular instance during the second day of his trial today (2 Oct) in which his lawyer had cross-examined a police officer involved in the investigation of his case:

My lawyer asked her twice whether she agreed that it is important that a statement by an accused should be given voluntarily, and that is is signed willingly. On both occasions, she disagreed.

It was puzzling because while she conceded that pressuring people against their will to sign a statement is a legitimate means of extracting confessions, she also appeared to contradict herself, by testifying that an officer cannot force someone to sign a document if they’re not willing to. Perhaps she realised she had made a mistake by disclosing police pressure tactics and tried to back pedal.

Mr Wham, who is particularly known for his efforts in championing the rights of migrant workers, cites the account of several migrant workers who have purportedly undergone coercive interrogation tactics in the hands of the police:

[…] I have heard from some migrant workers over the years that they were pressured through threats to sign statements unwillingly. This is made worse by the fact that they are not allowed to keep a copy of these statements. (This was also why I refused to sign mine).

Most are told that they will be stuck in Singapore indefinitely without income if they don’t plead guilty and decide to claim trial.

A worker who was suspected of taking part in the Little India riot a few years ago told me he was made to do push ups and squats during investigation.

The SMRT drivers who went on strike over their pay in 2012 also alleged that they were assaulted while under custody.

A Sri Lankan survivor of sex trafficking once told me she was assaulted in a cold room by the police to extract information she was reluctant to disclose about her trafficker.

He added that “such stories hardly come to light because most victims are afraid of filing complaints and speaking out,” adding that it is difficult to actually find out the truth behind such investigations, as “an independent commission to investigate police wrongdoing” is absent, and “nor are there cameras in investigation rooms to monitor police abuse of power.”

Mr Wham warned that transparency is “lacking in many of our institutions” despite its importance.

“We would like to believe that police officers do not abuse their power. But until we have independent checks and balances, we should be skeptical and assume they do,” he concluded.

Mr Wham is currently undergoing trial over allegedly having organised a public assembly titled “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” featuring a live speech by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong Chi-Fung via video call on Skype two years ago:

Mr Wham was charged under the Public Order Act for allegedly “failing to apply for a permit” when Mr Wong was included in the indoor discussion via video call.

“It is an offence under the Public Order Act not to obtain approval from the police when a foreigner speaks on ’cause-related’ or ‘political’ issues,” wrote Mr Wham in a Facebook post last Wednesday (26 Sep).