SINGAPORE — A British author facing a possible jail term over his book criticising Singapore’s use of the death penalty was defiant following his first court hearing Friday.
Alan Shadrake appeared in a packed courtroom to hear contempt of court charges levelled against him by the Attorney General following the local launch of his book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock”.
A High Court judge granted an adjournment, giving Shadrake’s lawyer two weeks to further prepare for the case and another week for prosecutors to respond.
With his passport impounded to prevent him from leaving the country, the 75-year-old freelance journalist remained defiant despite facing possible imprisonment.
“Whatever they do to me, it will prove whatever I say in my book,” he told reporters outside the court after the hearing.
“I’m not a wimp, I’m not a coward,” Shadrake added. “I want to have my day in court… I’m not running away. If I run away, it means I’m guilty.”
Shadrake’s book features candid conversations with a retired hangman, Darshan Singh, who the author says executed some 1,000 local and foreign criminals in a career spanning nearly half a century.
Based in Malaysia and Britain, Shadrake is out on bail for the contempt charges, and is undergoing a separate investigation for criminal defamation.
Defamation carries a sentence of two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both, while contempt of court is “punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine, with no limits on either,” said a statement from the Attorney General’s Chambers.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups have urged Singapore to abolish the death penalty.
Amnesty said that with a population of nearly five million, Singapore has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world. It executed 420 people between 1991 and 2004.
However, Singapore officials maintain that capital punishment has deterred drug dealers from operating in the country and spared the lives of thousands of young people from drugs.
The death penalty is mandatory for anyone caught trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis.
Shadrake said his arrest had been counterproductive for the Singapore authorities.
“They’ve blown me up into a worldwide celebrity,” he said, adding that his book was “selling like hot cakes” in neighbouring Malaysia.
SINGAPORE — A British author vowed Friday to fight charges in Singapore related to his book on the city-state’s death penalty policy, even if it lands him in jail.
Alan Shadrake, 75, said he rejected a plea bargain from the attorney general’s office to drop a contempt of court charge in exchange for an apology for statements about Singapore’s judicial system in his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock.”
“They can put me in jail, I don’t care,” Shadrake said in an interview before a preliminary hearing. “They will not shut me up.”
Shadrake was arrested July 18 and freed on bail two days later in connection with a criminal defamation investigation that is still continuing. The attorney general also charged Shadrake with contempt of court, which, like criminal defamation, carries a possible punishment of jail, a fine or both.
The attorney-general’s office alleges statements in the book impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary.
“The allegations and imputations in the book are calculated to undermine the authority of the Singapore courts and public confidence in the administration of justice,” the attorney general’s office said in court documents. “By reason of bringing to existence, publication and distribution of the book which scandalized the Singapore judiciary, the respondent has committed contempt of court.”
Prosecutor David Chong said in court Friday that the attorney general’s office would accept an “unqualified apology” from Shadrake given the author’s ailing health. Shadrake said he takes daily medication for heart disease.
Chong also warned journalists against publishing any “contemptuous material” related to the case.
Judge Quentin Loh granted Shadrake a two-week adjournment to prepare his case, and the attorney general will have week after that to respond.
Shadrake, who was born in Essex, England and has four children, said he did not expect to be arrested after hosting a book launch party July 17 because the Media Development Authority has not banned the sale of the book in Singapore.
“I’m not trying to be a martyr,” said Shadrake, who has also written books about Berlin in the 1960s and Bruce Lee. “But in the process of writing this book, I learned about the injustices and the families of the victims and that turned me into an activist.”
The book features an interview with Darshan Singh, who was Singapore’s hangman from 1959 to 2006.
Singapore’s leaders have sued journalists and political opponents several times in past years for defamation. The government says restrictions on speech and assembly are necessary to preserve economic prosperity and racial and religious harmony in this multiethnic city-state of 5 million people. It says any statement that damages the reputations of its leaders will hinder their ability to rule effectively.
Human rights groups say Singapore uses criminal defamation laws to silence critics.
“Free speech is an endangered species in Singapore,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “It’s sadly predictable that the government did not hesitate to threaten prosecution, fines, and imprisonment against an author whose views run contrary to its own.”
Singapore applies capital punishment by hanging for offenses such as murder, drug trafficking and unlawful use of a firearm. The island nation at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula is one of the world’s richest and has a very low violent crime rate.
The People’s Action Party has held power since 1959.
“I would never apologize and I would never say sorry,” Shadrake told reporters as he left court Friday. “I didn’t do this to grovel to them like Singaporeans mostly have to do to lead a normal life.”
Alan Shadrake, the British author charged for contempt of court for challenging the integrity and independence of Singapore’s judiciary, said he wouldn’t apologize for his book on the city’s death penalty.
“I want to have my day in court,” he said after his trial was adjourned today to allow his lawyer more time to prepare a defense of fair criticism and fair comment. “I didn’t spend three years writing the book only to run away,” Shadrake said.
The 75-year-old writer is also being investigated for criminal defamation by Singapore authorities. His book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock,” suggests that the government “succumbs to political and economic pressures” in meting out the death penalty, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said in court papers.
Shadrake can “tender an unreserved apology in unqualified terms,” David Chong, chief counsel of the Attorney-General’s civil division, said in court today. “Justification is no defense” for contempt of court, Chong said.
Refusing to apologize would count as an“aggravating factor,”the Attorney-General’s office said in a statement today. “An apology tendered to the court, if unqualified and sincere, may mitigate the punishment,” according to the statement.
The book “insinuates that the Singapore judiciary is a tool of the People’s Action Party to muzzle political dissent” through the award of “heavy damages in defamation actions brought without legal basis,” the Attorney General’s office said in the court papers. The book contains comments that imply the Singapore judiciary was “guilty of impropriety” by being “biased particularly against the weak, poor or less educated,” according to the papers.
Shadrake’s lawyer M. Ravi asked Justice Quentin Loh today to order Chong “not to put unnecessary fear in the media” after the prosecutor told journalists not to cite contentious statements from the book or risk being in contempt as well.
“I see quite a number of members of the media smiling,” Loh said. “I don’t think they’re in fear.”
Shadrake’s book isn’t banned in Singapore, the Media Development Authority said in an e-mailed statement today. The regulator added that book retailers and distributors will have to seek legal advice on whether they can sell or distribute the book in the city-state.
“Singapore uses criminal defamation laws to silence critics of government policies,” Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director Donna Guest said. “If Singapore aspires to be a global media city, it needs to respect global human rights standards for freedom of expression.”
The Singapore police have said that Shadrake’s anti-death penalty views are not the issue in its investigations.
“It is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are,” the police said. “Those who disagree with our position have presented their arguments and as a matter of principle, we respect their right to hold such opposing views, as we hope they do ours.”
The city-state, which has one of the world’s lowest crime rates according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, imposes a death penalty for offenses including murder and drug trafficking.
Singapore in 2008 expanded the scope of free speech including allowing outdoor public demonstrations without police permits at designated areas and eased restrictions on political films. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August 2008 the moves were to “liberalize our society, widen the space for expression and participation.”
Contempt of court carries a jail sentence, a fine, or both. No maximum penalty has been specified under Singapore’s constitution, according to the Attorney General’s office.
In March 2009, Singapore’s High Court fined a senior Wall Street Journal editor S$10,000 ($7,300) for the publication of three articles that the city-state’s government said showed contempt of its judiciary. Three activists were sentenced to between seven and 15 days in prison for wearing t-shirts with pictures of a kangaroo dressed as a judge in another contempt of court lawsuit.
Dressed in a sand-colored linen suit, Shadrake waved to the gallery as he entered the court earlier and showed the thumbs up sign. His lawyer told the court that Shadrake suffers from a heart condition and hypertension and has been “put to severe stress,” because of the trial and criminal defamation investigation.
Shadrake told reporters outside the court the case has helped his book, now in its third printing, “sell like hot cakes.”
The Singapore government has “blown me up into an international celebrity,” he said. “Before, I was just an unknown poor journalist.”
The case is Attorney-General vs Alan Shadrake OS720/2010 in the Singapore High Court.