SDP’s Chee Soon Juan shares 1992 incident of wrongful conviction of an innocent man; slams PAP’s amendments to WP’s motion

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan took to Facebook on Monday (9 November) to highlight an incident that happened in 1992 where an innocent man was wrongfully charged for a crime he didn’t commit, similar to the recent Parti Liyani’s case.

Explaining the incident, Dr Chee said in his post that a manual labourer named Zainal Kuning was charged in court for stabbing a coffeeshop caretaker to death in 1989. He was charged after confessing to the crime, and would be hanged if convicted.

If that’s not all, his accomplice, Salahuddin Ismail, was also charged similarly, while a third man, who is Salahuddin’s brother, had his charge reduced to burglary.

“Then something extraordinary happened. Pending his trial while in prison (Zainal had recanted and alleged that he was tortured into confessing to the murder), he learned from an inmate that he (the inmate) had overheard a man boast that he had killed the caretaker,” Dr Chee wrote.

He added, “By another stroke of luck, the inmate said that he remembered the man’s name as Man Semput and that Man Semput had said that the victim had flung boiling water at him, leaving scald marks on his chest”.

This then prompted Zainal to contact the late J B Jeyaretnam, lawyer and founder of Reform Party, as he believed that he would help him.

Despite Mr Jeyaretnam’s full effort to fight the case, Dr Chee said that Zainal’s case was hopeless as it was difficult to overturn a confession voluntarily given.

“But was the confession voluntary? Zainal testified that he was repeatedly drenched under the shower and forced to stand in front of an air-conditioner going full blast, holding telephone directories in each hand,” Dr Chee stated.

He continued, “The interrogators told the accused that another accomplice said that it was Zainal who had stabbed the caretaker. Zainal said that he was not even present at the scene, both he and Salahuddin had given alibis. Despite there being no physical corroborating evidence, the police pressed on. It worked. After 24 hours, Zainal, overcome with fear and exhaustion, gave in and confessed”.

Dr Chee then went on to explain that during the trial, the police “vehemently denied” getting the confession from Zainal under duress. “The presiding judge (the late) Justice Sinnathuray held that the confession was voluntarily given”.

Following this, Mr Jeyaretnam then pressed the police to track down Man Semput. Just an hour later, the police managed to locate a man by that name and he had scald marks on his chest, Dr Chee said.

The renowned lawyer then challenged the prosecutors to run fingerprint checks on a crate at the crime scene, and it was revealed that it matched those of Man Semput. His real name was Mohd Sulaiman.

This then resulted Deputy Public Prosecutor Bala Reddy to drop the case, and both Zainal and Salahuddin left the prison after three years as free men.

“What if Zainal had not fortuitously encountered that inmate who overheard Sulaiman’s conversation with his friends? What if the inmate could not remember the man identifying himself as ‘Man Semput’?” asked Dr Chee.

He further questioned, “What if Zainal did not manage to find a lawyer like JBJ? Why was no lawyer present when Zainal was interrogated by the police?”

Situation remains the same after 20 years

In the post, Dr Chee said that the justice system in the country remains the same after more than 20 years.

He was referring to the case of Parti Liyani – a former domestic helper who was acquitted of stealing from her ex-employers, the family of former Changi Airport Group Chairman Liew Mun Leong.

“Fast forward to 2020. Another case, this one involving domestic helper Parti Liyani, has sparked questions about the criminal justice system. In the period between Zainal’s and Parti’s cases, little has changed,” Dr Chee noted

He said that the difference in the recent Ms Parti’s case is that social media have helped spread information widely and quickly. As such, it helped to get her acquitted for the theft charges.

“Question: How many other Zainals and Partis have been accused of crimes but were not so fortunate to be exonerated?” asked the SDP chief.

Slams PAP for amending WP’s motion

Looking at this case, Dr Chee pointed out that calling for a review of Singapore’s justice system is not misplaced. This is exactly why the Workers’ Party (WP) tabled a motion in Parliament to include “facilitating a review of the justice system”, the alternative party leader stated.

“But PAP MP, Mr Murali Pillai, amended the motion by deleting, among other things, those few words. His party colleagues then voted to pass the amended version.

“It is unfortunate that Mr Murali chose to speak up for his party, and not the people; more importantly, for a situation that is in dire need of a review,” Dr Chee concluded.

WP MP Sylvia Lim filed a motion early this month on Singapore’s justice system, which was heavily discussed in Parliament. A day after the debate, fellow WP MP Leon Perera took to Facebook to highlight the amendment motion submitted by ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Murali Pillai.

He said, “The Workers’ Party’s original motion called for an external review to consider changes to address gaps and shortcomings in the current justice system, particularly as relates to access to justice for all. Have a look at how the amendment changed the meaning and sense of that motion.

The WP politician went on to ask the public to look at how Mr Pillai’s amendments have “changed the meaning and sense of that motion”, adding that an overwhelming majority of PAP MPs passed the amendment motion instead of the original.

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