A Wholly Tragic and Unnecessary Death
I was saddened and angry to read of the apparent suicide of 14 year-old Benjamin Lim. This happened on the same day he was arrested at school and taken away for questioning for an alleged offence of outrage of modesty.
It is difficult to understand why it was necessary to arrest Benjamin at school and not ask his parents to bring him down to the police station after school. In the UK, whose legal system we follow except where the PAP Government finds it more convenient to ignore the rights of its citizens, the police will not arrest anyone under the age of 17 at school unless they have no choice.
While the police phoned Benjamin’s mother using the boy’s mobile they did not allow her to be present when they questioned Benjamin. This again contravenes the accepted rights of juveniles in most advanced countries. Citing the UK again the police must find an ‘appropriate adult’ to be present during questioning and searching. The appropriate adult would normally be a parent but could also be a social worker, another family member aged 18 or over or an adult volunteer.
The UK police also have to inform everyone, adults or juveniles, of their right to free legal advice and they are not allowed to question you without a lawyer being present unless you waive that right. However they do have the right to deny you access to a lawyer for up to 36 hours.
Singapore is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 40 (b) states:
Every child alleged as or accused of having infringed the penal law has at least the following guarantees:
(i) To be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law;
(ii) To be informed promptly and directly of the charges against him or her, and, if appropriate, through his or her parents or legal guardians, and to have legal or other appropriate assistance in the preparation and presentation of his or her defence;
(iii) To have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance and, unless it is considered not to be in the best interest of the child, in particular, taking into account his or her age or situation, his or her parents or legal guardians;
(iv) Not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt; to examine or have examined adverse witnesses and to obtain the participation and examination of witnesses on his or her behalf under conditions of equality;
(v) If considered to have infringed the penal law, to have this decision and any measures imposed in consequence thereof reviewed by a higher competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body according to law;
(vi) To have the free assistance of an interpreter if the child cannot understand or speak the language used;
(vii) To have his or her privacy fully respected at all stages of the proceedings.
While the Convention does not specify when juvenile suspects are to be allowed access to a lawyer (see (ii) above) the presumption must be that access to legal assistance should be granted sooner rather than later since not having a lawyer present during interrogation would harm your defence.
(iv) also states that children should not be compelled to give testimony or confess guilt, certainly not without a lawyer being present. Without either a lawyer or one of his parents present, the police were able to extract a confession from Benjamin remarkably quickly and were not doubt commending themselves on their usual efficiency in having completed their investigations so quickly. Yet the spirit of the Convention was violated under both Articles 40 (ii) and (iv).
It is not only children whose rights are violated. Everyone, adults or children, should have the right to have a lawyer present during police questioning or to remain silent without any negative consequences till a lawyer has been provided. This is the case in the UK and the US (where you have an absolute right to silence without it affecting your defence) and in most advanced democratic countries.
Singapore prides itself on being an exception. As Shanmugan, our Justice Minister, is fond of pointing out, trampling on the rights of suspects is what keeps Singapore’s crime so low compared to other countries (if it is really so low or not an illusion created by the lack of police resources so a lot of crime goes un-investigated and even unrecorded).
Yet it is not clear from our Constitution that the police have the right to deny you access to a lawyer at their discretion. Article 9 (3) says:
Where a person is arrested, he shall be informed as soon as may be of the grounds of his arrest and shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.
I am not a lawyer but the use of the word “shall” in this context surely means within a reasonable space of time which should not extend longer than 24-48 hours at most. It should not be the police’s right to deny a suspect access to a lawyer till it is convenient for them to do so and until they have extracted a confession from the suspect.
The Court of Appeal’s ruling in Vellama d/0 Marie Muthu v. Attorney-General supports this view. To quote the Wikipedia article, “Noting the absence in Article 49(1) of a specific time frame within which a parliamentary vacancy must be filled, the Court held that the Prime Minister must do so with “all convenient speed” in line with the common law concept of reasonable time” Convenience
Recently, in January 2016 but before the tragic case of Benjamin Lim, the Law Society renewed its call for accused persons to have early access to their lawyers with the President, Thio Shen Yi, stating that the need for a lawyer is “amplified given that an accused can be convicted on the evidence of their confession alone, even if they subsequently recant”. “The trial should not take place in the police station”
Until these basic rights are recognised it is difficult to see how Singapore can be described by the PAP Government and internationally as having rule of law. We are a wealthy country and not only should accused persons be granted access to a lawyer but one should be provided as of right in cases where a custodial sentence is possible, as is the practice in the UK and the US.
Returning to the case of Benjamin Lim, the police should not have arrested him at school unless there were public safety reasons for doing so. Under the Convention as a juvenile he had a right to privacy. The police should not have questioned him without a parent or appropriate adult being present and he should have been granted access to a lawyer. As this was a potentially serious case a lawyer should have been provided if his parents could not afford one.
The police have said they are reviewing their procedures. Sadly that is too late for Benjamin and a young life has been wasted. This was an entirely preventable tragedy.