Was there a miscarriage of justice in the case of Tangaraju Suppiah?

Was there a miscarriage of justice in the case of Tangaraju Suppiah?

by Teo Soh Lung

In a nutshell, Tangaraju Supiah was sentenced to death and executed for abetting to traffic about 1kg of cannabis based on the evidence of two accomplices – Mogan and Suresh.

The latter appeared to have committed a drug offence as he, like Tangaraju, had to report for urine tests at the police station. He was granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal prior to the trial of Tangaraju.

Read Justice Hoo Sheau Peng’s judgement of the charge against Tangaraju here

What I find troubling about this case is how shoddy the police went about its investigation.

It took them six months (6 September 2013 – 3 March 2014) to arrest Tangaraju and investigate him for the offence.

By that time, both mobile phones which the police relied on as evidence to convict him could not be found. So were the call records of those two phones.

The most alarming aspect of this case is that Mogan, who was arrested on 6 September 2013 by CNB officers after his vehicle crossed the Woodlands Checkpoint with about 1kg of cannabis, was instructed by CNB officer to call a person at 83567639 (first number).

That person was supposed to take delivery of the drugs. Mogan made seven calls to the first number between 11.50 pm on 6 September 2013 to 2 am on 7 September 2013 on such instructions.

Yet the owner of that first number was never traced, or the mobile phone seized. How inefficient can the police be? Worse, the police could not even produce the call records of the first number at the trial of Tangaraju.

Though the name of the owner of the first number is not disclosed in Justice Hoo’s judgement, it can be assumed that Tangaraju was not the owner of that number.

From the start, Tangaraju denied that he had ever used the first number. He admitted that he had two mobile phones – 81787447 for his personal use and 90356293 (second number) for his minimart business and communications with the police pertaining to his urine tests.

He also admitted that he gave the second number to Suresh, his childhood friend who he met in 2013 after years of no contact and had coffee with him occasionally.

According to Tangaraju, they again met by accident at the void deck of Block 34 Dover Road on 5 September 2013. (According to Suresh, they met on 6 September).

Tangaraju told Suresh that he was going for his urine test at Clementi Police Station at 9pm the next day, 6 September. Suresh said he, too was going for his urine test on the same day.

According to Tangaraju, he went to the Clementi Police Station at 9 pm on 6 September, waited for Suresh for a few minutes and not seeing him; he went inside the police station for his urine test. He left the police station at about 9.15 pm and saw Suresh and Shashi at the carpark.

He was invited to have dinner with them, but he declined and took a taxi back to his minimart. The judge disbelieved his evidence, taking particular note of one piece of evidence relating to a message from Suresh to the second number on 6 September 2013 at 7.57 pm which read: “Car stan by ready.”

The judge concluded, based strictly on the evidence of Suresh and Mogan, that Tangaraju was the owner of the second number (which is not denied by Tangaraju) and disbelieved his evidence that he had lost this mobile phone on 7 August 2013.

Indeed, he claimed that he had lost his mobile phone (second number) on more than one occasion – leaving his phone in a taxi and bus stop, mostly in the Tuas area.

Justice Hoo’s disbelief of Tangaraju was based largely on the absence of the mention of the phone being lost in several of his long statement except for the last statement.

She said Tangaraju mentioned that he lost his phone only when he was confronted with the above message from Suresh on 23 May 2014, stating “Car stan by ready.” She said in her judgement at para 55:

“In a bid to further distance himself from the second number, the accused claimed that he had lost the mobile phone bearing the number 90356293 on 7 August 2013, and had not used that number since. …”

It is worth noting that there was no response to Suresh’s message.

In any investigation, the person accused of the crime would not know what evidence the police were looking for. It is possible that Tangaraju did not suspect that the second number was material to the police and therefore did not mention that he had lost it.

After all, his defence was that he did not commit the crime. He had denied this in his cautioned statement.

He may have realised the importance of the second number only when he was asked about the message from Suresh. It may have been his first time seeing the message. That may have made him remember that he had lost his phone.

When cross-examined at the trial as to why he did not mention that he lost his phone in his earlier long statements, the judgement at para 57 read:

“When confronted with his omission to state that he had lost that mobile phone on 7 August 2013 in his 24 April 2014 statement, the accused alleged that he had informed Insp Ng about that fact after the conclusion of the recording of the statement. This was a spurious and baseless allegation which was first brought up during cross-examination of the accused. No mention of Insp Ng’s failure to record what he had stated was made in the accused’s examination-in chief. Further, the accused did not explain the loss of the mobile phone in any of the subsequent statements that the accused gave (which the Defence adduced at the trial), and only raised this in response to a subsequent question asked by Insp Ng in the final long statement. On her part, Insp Ng maintained that the accused had said no such thing to her, and gave clear evidence that she would have amended the statement to add the accused’s further comments had he made them.”

Adding to this allegation, Tangaraju also claimed that he asked for a Tamil interpreter but was denied one.

It is not known what was Tangaraju’s proficiency in the English language. He apparently spoke through a Tamil interpreter in court. Maybe he did not tell the truth when he made those allegations. But it is also possible that he never thought much of the second number because he had only used it for his minimart business and urine tests and did not think it was important to mention that he had lost the phone when the earlier long statements were recorded.

The omission to inform the police of the loss of his mobile phone, however, should not distract us from the fact that there was no response to Suresh’s message “Car stan by ready.”

If Tangaraju was in possession of the mobile phone and saw the message, he did not reply. If a stranger who was holding the phone received that message, he, too, did not reply. How could this evidence conclusively prove that Tangaraju was lying about the loss of his mobile phone?

‘I think it is wrong to assume that Tangaraju was in possession of the second number mobile phone on the day the crime was committed. It cannot be assumed that he was attempting to distance himself from the second number when he claimed that it was lost.

Call records

As stated earlier, it took the police six months to link the seizure of 1kg of cannabis from Mogan with Tangaraju.

During all those months, Tangaraju was reporting to the police station for his urine tests and the State Courts for the charge/s that he had failed to report for urine tests and being granted bail until bail was denied on 3 March 2014.

I am surprised that the police took such a long time to investigate a capital case.

The police were always super-efficient when they dealt with activists. Activists were summoned to the police station soon after the “commission” of the offence.

The first thing they do was to seize their mobile phones. Compared to drug trafficking, the offences allegedly committed by activists were nothing but acts of civil disobedience. So why did they take so long to investigate a drug trafficking case? Their delay had very serious adverse consequences for Tangaraju.

Call records of both the first and second numbers are extremely important to Tangaraju.

The prosecution’s case is that Tangaraju communicated with his accomplices using both mobile phones. Tangaraju’s defence is that the first number was not his. He admitted that the second number was his but his defence was that he had lost it at the material time.

If the prosecution is right that the first number was Tangaraju’s, the call records would reveal all his communications with his personal friends and family. That would confirm that the first number was his.

But if those records were not in the call records, then that first number could only have been used by someone else, and that person who is supposed to take delivery of the cannabis is still at large.

It is shocking that Judge Hoo took the missing call records lightly when she simply accepted the prosecutor’s words that they tried to obtain the records, but they were not available.

If they had tried to trace the owner of the first number from the day Mogan and Suresh were arrested, the call records might have exonerated Tangaraju from the crime.

Similarly, the call records of the second number were also crucial for Tangaraju’s defence, but they were no longer available at the time of the trial.

These missing call records have raised reasonable doubt in the case of the prosecution. The question which should have been asked by the judge should have been why the prosecution failed to trace the owner of the first number from the day Mogan and Suresh were arrested.

She should not have accepted the excuse that the records were no longer available. Tangaraju would have discharged his burden of proof by raising a reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case.

Prosecution’s failure to call two witnesses

Defence counsel must have submitted on the adverse inference to be drawn by the prosecution’s failure to call Salina (Malaysian girlfriend of Mogan) and Shashi (driver of the car which transported Suresh to McDonald to collect the cannabis).

In para 78 of the judgement, Justice Hoo said:

“… While Shashi’s evidence would have been relevant in that it would have either corroborated or contradicted Suresh’s evidence, I accepted that the Prosecution had taken reasonable steps to locate Shashi, including calling him on his mobile phone and sending him letters at his registered address. The mere fact that the prosecution had not made attempts to call him in person at his registered address did not undermine the prosecution’s case. (Emphasis mine). Moreover, I should stress that in finding that the accused was the user of the first number, I had relied not just on Suresh’s evidence, but also on Mogan’s evidence and the accused’s own admission.”

I find this undue deference to the prosecutor absurd. This case involves Tangaraju’s life. Surely the prosecutor should do its utmost to secure the attendance of those witnesses. Physically visiting Shashi’s registered address may lead them to his whereabouts.

Singapore is just a small island. I disagree that the police had taken reasonable steps to locate Shashi. We know that the police would go to an activist’s home even at late hours of the night and on public holidays.

We know they track an activist movements 24 hours over a period of time. If they had put in effort, there is no way in which Shashi cannot be found. The judge herself had accepted that his evidence would be relevant.

Should not an adverse inference be drawn that Shashi’s evidence would contradict Suresh’s evidence if he were to be called as a witness?

It is the same with the Salina who was Mogan’s girlfriend. She left for Malaysia and the prosecution could not find her. Surely she too was a material witness and should have been called to testify.

Our police have been exceptionally vigilant with migrant workers and activists. They are not allowed to leave Singapore pending completion of investigations without permission from the police. Their passports are withheld. How can the prosecution let Salina leave the country pending completion of investigation and trial?

Tangaraju’s appeal

Tangaraju appealed after his conviction. The appeal was dismissed without a written judgement. Presumably the judges of appeal fully agreed with the judgement of Justice Hoo. They are noted for writing erudite judgements. But for this case they didn’t bother to write a judgement.

Criminal Motion No. 25 of 2022 was filed for a review of the Appellate Court’s judgement. It was heard by Justice of the Court of Appeal Steven Chong. It was dismissed.

I understand that another review application was filed two days before Tangaraju’s execution. It was dismissed a day before his execution. The judge who dismissed the application was also Justice Chong.

Justice Chong was Attorney General from 25 June 2012 to 24 June 2014. Tangaraju was arrested on 3 March 2014, and subsequently charged.

As Attorney General, he should not have been the judge for both review applications. Even if he was not in charge of the prosecution of Tangaraju, the rule of law demands that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

The dismissal of the second review application the day before Tangaraju was executed was tragic. Justice Chong should have adjourned the hearing and recused himself. Why the haste? Justice hurried is justice buried. Tangaraju is dead.

Plea bargaining

On Sunday, 23 April 2023, I attended a press conference organised by Transformative Justice Collective.

The family of Tangaraju said that he was offered a reduced charge which carried a 20-year imprisonment term before the trial. He rejected that offer. Later, the prosecution offered him 15 years and finally 12 years. Both were rejected.

I do not know if those offers were made by the prosecution. If they were made and rejected by Tangaraju, it could well be that he maintained his innocence and was confident of an acquittal. He took a big risk and lost his life.

Evidence of Accomplices

It is regrettable that the police had failed to investigate the case efficiently and speedily.

The court’s reliance on the so called “corroborative evidence” of two “accomplices,” was dangerous although allowed in law.

The prosecution’s failure to call Shashi and Salina as witnesses on flimsy excuses of inability to find them should have been rejected and inferences drawn that their evidence would have contradicted the evidence of Mogan and Suresh.

There is a likelihood that the person who would have taken delivery of the 1kg of cannabis had it not been for Mogan’s arrest is still at large.

To convict Tangaraju purely on the evidence that Mogan and Suresh had the same two mobile phone numbers and the identification of the voice as that of Tangaraju by Suresh was unsafe. Someone other than Tangaraju using the second number could have imitated his voice.

Justice Hoo was also convinced that Tangaraju lied about his having lost his mobile phone because both Mogan and Suresh had the second number.

The explanation is simple. It was given to Mogan when he first called the first number which allegedly belonged to “India.” India may not be Tangaraju. That mobile phone may not be his.

Tangaraju has been executed. In history, innocent people have been wrongly convicted and executed. Timothy John Evans was executed for the murders of his wife and daughter in 1950. Till the end, Evans maintained his innocence.

It took 50 years of sustained and persistent campaigns for the UK government to acknowledge their grievous mistake and grant posthumous pardon for Evans.

Human beings are fallible. I don’t know if Tangaraju is another Evans. It is best to abolish the death penalty.

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