Asia Sentinel, Written by Paul Karl Lukacs
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
The author, Alan Shadrake
The author of "Once a Jolly Hangman" incarcerated for six weeks for "scandalizing the judiciary
Alan Shadrake, the British author found guilty earlier this month of the
charge of "scandalizing the judiciary" by alleging in a book that
racial and class disparities exists in the application of Singapore's
death penalty, was sentenced Tuesday to six weeks in jail.
sentencing was met by criticism by an organization calling itself
Singaporeans For Democracy, which asked the United Nations to take note
of the case and to hold the government accountable during the Universal
Periodic Review process later in 2011. In addition, his defense lawyer, M
Ravi, said the Member of Parliament from Shadrake's home constituency
in the UK will request that the House of Commons condemn the sentence.
Shadrake has a week to appeal, but Ravi said Singaporean law doesn't
favor Shadrake's chances in the Court of Appeal.
High Court fined the author S$20,000 (US$15,375), with the stipulation
that Shadrake's confinement was to be extended by two weeks if he did
not pay. The presiding judge, Justice Quentin Loh Sze On, also ordered
Shadrake to pay the prosecution's expenses of S$55,000(US$42,300).
serving his sentence, Shadrake's troubles may not be over. The
Singaporean government is still holding his passport and has not
clarified whether it will pursue threatened charges of criminal
defamation as well.
Justice Loh possessed wide discretion in
determining the sentence. A contempt of court conviction is governed by
Rule of Court Order 52, which is silent on the issues of sentence length
and fine amount. Into that vacuum, the Singaporean courts have read a
broad sentencing power.
"An offence of contempt is punishable
with either a fine or imprisonment, and unlike a criminal offence, it is
not subject to any limits on the duration of imprisonment or the amount
of fine," the High Court ruled in 2006 while imposing a short prison
sentence on anti-government activist Dr. Chee Soon Juan.
vague limit of reasonableness curtails the trial judge's sentencing
options. "Although it is accepted that imprisonment and fine are two of
the permissible sanctions, no limit has been set for either one," the
High Court explained in a 2008 contempt ruling against the Asian Wall Street Journal
. "Nonetheless, it is clear that the power to punish for contempt of court should be exercised reasonably."
media reports which stated that Shadrake faced a maximum possible
sentence of two years are incorrect. Two years is the maximum for a
person convicted of criminal defamation, the crime with which Shadrake
has been threatened but not actually charged.
In determining Shadrake's sentence, Justice Loh had three principal options.
judge could have imposed a sentence so light that journalistic interest
in the case would have evaporated. A sentence of time served and a
nominal fine would have resulted in Shadrake's immediate release while
maintaining the Attorney-General's Chambers' curiously consistent
winning streak in high-profile political cases.
The most severe
possible punishment is based on the charge's special status as a
contempt of court. In such cases, a judge has the discretion to imprison
a defendant until he has purged himself of contempt -- in other words,
recanted. So it would have been within the power of Justice Loh to order
Shadrake's imprisonment until Shadrake apologized and repudiated the
thesis of his book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock
did apologize, saying it had not been his intention to undermine
Singapore's judicial system, after weeks of defiance. Prosecutors
immediately said Shadrake's apology was insincere. It didn't appear to
help his case.)
While a harsher sentence would have been
tin-eared and perhaps counterproductive vis-à-vis the international
community, it would have served the purposes of the notoriously
thin-skinned and vindictive Singaporean government in squelching
As it happened, the judge chose a middle path,
imposing an intermediate sentence which is harsh enough to intimidate
locals and Singapore-based foreign correspondents from publicly
questioning the independence of the nation's judiciary but is lenient
enough that the British government and free press NGOs would not make
the case a priority.
With a general election rumored to be in the
near future, Shadrake's sentence appears to be perfectly calibrated to
vindicate the interests of Singapore's one-party regime.
Paul Karl Lukacs, a practicing media and business attorney, is legal affairs correspondent for Asia Sentinel. He blogs at Nomad Law.