British journalist Alan Shadrake was today convicted of contempt by the High Court in Singapore over a book he wrote about the island Republic’s use of the death penalty.
The conviction follows completion of a three-day trial last week in which Singapore’s Attorney General demanded a minimum six-month jail sentence to reflect the “gravity” of 75-year-old Shadrake’s offence.
Contempt of court in Singapore is punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both. High Court Judge Quentin Loh reserved sentencing for 9 November.
The book, entitled Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, discusses Singapore’s use of capital punishment and alleges that well-connected defendants, particularly in drugs cases, often get off relatively lightly while the poor and less well-connected are sentenced to death.
It also questions the independence of the judiciary, and highlights criticisms levelled at Singapore’s justice system by organisations such as Amnesty International and the International Bar Association.
Judge Loh said in a written judgment today that Shadrake was “guilty of the offence of contempt by scandalising the court”, news agency Reuters reported.
The author would have the opportunity to make amends for his comments, the judge said, although he did not say if that would affect the sentencing.
Shadrake could also now face separate charges of criminal defamation, according to some reports – which could mean a two-year jail sentence.
The judge said in his decision that Shadrake had used a “selective background of truths and half-truths, and sometimes outright falsehoods” in the book.
The court had no interest in stifling debate on the death penalty and was constitutionally bound to protect every citizen’s right to engage in such debate, the judge said.
But the law would step in when “such debate goes beyond the limits of fair criticism”, he went on, adding that this was not done for the dignity of the judges but “only to ensure the public’s confidence in the administration of justice does not falter”.
Deputy senior state counsel Hema Subramanian, for the Attorney General, had told the High Court last week, as the State’s case came to a close, that the book was the worst form of contempt of court, and that allegations made by Shadrake had no precedent in their gravity.
“No clearer or more egregious example of scandalising the court can be found,” she said. “He’s basically telling us you cannot come to court and get justice… All he has done in his book is concoct scandals and…attack the rule of law in this country.”
Shadrake’s defence lawyer, M Ravi, had argued that the book’s contents were fair, and that it was “a serious-minded and compassionate examination of the death penalty in Singapore”.
He also accused the Attorney General’s Chambers of using bullying tactics to punish his client, a freelance journalist, for writing a book critical of the Singapore judiciary.
He said that no complaint was made against Shadrake, who is based in Malaysia, until he was arrested when he entered Singapore earlier this year.
In addition, Singapore’s Media Development Authority had made no attempt to ban the book, which had already sold more than 6,000 copies.
The conviction was greeted with dismay by the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative, which assisted Shadrake’s defence throughout the case.
Executive director Gugulethu Moyo said: “This is a further setback for media freedom in Singapore.
“Alan Shadrake’s book is a brave and necessary effort to investigate the working of the Singapore justice system in death penalty cases amid intensifying international concern about the administration of capital punishment in the country.
‘His conviction today stands as testament to Singapore’s determination to cow its critics.”
Press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders has launched a petition on its website calling on Singapore to release Shadrake and allow him to leave Singapore.
It said: “In fact, the book contains no defamatory remarks, no personal attacks or verbal assaults aimed at undermining the operation of the justice system.
“Given that it is simply a critical analysis of the institution and its methods as a result of a rigorous and well-documented investigation, this work cannot constitute contempt of court.”
It added: “Shadrake has been forced to stay on in Singapore since July in very difficult circumstances. His passport has been confiscated and his health has deteriorated badly since his arrest in July. He has serious heart problems and recently suffered an internal haemorrhage.”
Shadrake was also virtually without resources and was suffering serious financial problems, it added.