Shanmugam Defames A Dead Child and is The Pot That Calls LS President Thio Shen Yi, “Black”
I called the apparent suicide of Benjamin Lim, the 14 year old boy who was arrested and interrogated by the police without his parents or a lawyer being present a “wholly tragic and unnecessary death“. In Parliament yesterday the Law Minister Shanmugam entered the fray in what can only be described as The Pot Calling The Kettle Black. Shanmugam hit out at those who have criticised the police treatment of and lack of safeguards for suspects and particularly juveniles like Benjamin. He singled out the President of the Law Society, Thio Shen Yi for his statements in the 17 February edition of the Singapore Law Gazette which he said “effectively imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation” (see CNA report here).
Shanmugam said that Thio had no insight into the boy’s state of mind when he allegedly committed suicide and was not qualified to comment since he was not a psychologist. I say that Mr Shanmugam is even less qualified to comment. Only the Attorney General can decide whether a case will proceed to prosecution after SPF has passed on the results of their investigations. Poor Benjamin was dead within hours of being interrogated yet Shanmugam seems to profess insights into the state of mind of those who would have reviewed the case. Worse than this Shanmugam decides that a dead teenager whose case never went before a judge or the AG and who never stood trial stood trial was in fact guilty and would have been found guilty. Mr Shanmugam’s lack of professionalism and ignorance of the law doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell us what the theoretical outcome of decisions not made by him would have been.
To quote the man himself according to the state media report, Shanmugam said that “based on the evidence available in Benjamin’s case, it is likely that he would have received no more than a warning, and would not have been charged in court, adding that the police would have taken into account his young age and clean record prior to the alleged offence.” He went on to say “While all molests are taken seriously, the nature of the alleged molest here can probably be characterised as being in the less serious range, based on CCTV footages”.
It must be extremely upsetting to Benjamin’s parents to have statements made in public by a double portfolio Minister that have judged Benjamin and found him guilty without trial. As a lawyer Shanmugam knows that his comments are protected by Parliamentary privilege and that as Benjamin is dead he is free to defame him. I note that the freedom to defame a dead person did not apply to Amos Yee, another child who suffered rough justice at the hands of the authorities in Singapore, when he called LKY a horrible person. I don’t quite agree with M Ravi that Shanmugam is committing sub Judice as this is not a case that is going to court but he is clearly defaming a dead boy.
In attacking the President of the Law Society, Shanmugam also reminds us of the shameful way our Law Society has been hobbled and prevented from speaking up ever since Lee Kuan Yew’s attack on the Law Society in 1988 during the detentions of the so-called Marxist conspirators. It is an encouraging sign that things may finally be changing after so many years when one spineless Law Society President after another has failed to speak up to protect our fundamental rights and prevent abuse of the rule of law.
This is what the internationally respected human rights lawyer and Reform Party GE 2015 candidate M. Ravi had to say about Shanmugam’s speech in a Facebook post today:
“The law minister threatens the public particularly the online media with sub judice rule yet in the same breath why is he discussing the case and presenting the State’s version whilst the Coroner’s Inquiry is underway.
Why is he even saying that Benjamin would be likely to be let off with a warning . Is Benjamin already guilty?Benjamin is innocent until a guilty verdict is pronounced by the court. Shanmugam who is legally trained should know best but instead he chooses to accuse the law society’s President for writing on the case. The Law Society President was merely echoing the prevailing concerns among criminal lawyers.
Shanmugam is also proposing a change in the legislation to preclude public discussion on high profile cases. Good grief! I don’t think any democratic country has come out with extra regulations to curb free speech surrounding high profile cases.”
I have looked at the pictures on CNA reproduced below which show the actual spot where poor Benjamin was interviewed. Shanmugam says only one policeman interviewed Benjamin and that his statement was recorded in an open plan office with another policeman sitting a few feet away. It looks like a very public place in an open plan office. This is a boy who has already been hauled away from school by men who were clearly identified by his peers as policemen. Being questioned by the police in the open with everyone no doubt staring must have been humiliating for him. I can see he was made to sit on a small stool which may have been a police technique to rob him of dignity (see picture below from CNA) and it looks like he was on that stool for several hours.
Shanmugam is certainly trying his hardest to exonerate the police of any culpability in Benjamin’s death whilst playing the blame game himself and pointing the finger at others. He is doing what the PAP have always done best which is to employ smoke and mirrors to divert Singaporeans’ attention away from the fact that Singaporeans of any age lack basic rights and the protections of a Rule of Law. I hope this tragic death has caused Singaporeans to stop and think and maybe realise that there is something wrong with our Institutions both the educational ones and the criminal justice system. So what can we do to put it right? I know that most Singaporeans get bored with any talk of Rights but I’m not advocating Gay marriage here just the standard protections of Rule Of Law and a Youth or Vulnerable Person Code. After all our children deserve a better society and one that has Institutions which protect their rights whether they are innocent, guilty or just plain obnoxious.
The first rights our children need, as do our adults, is the right not to be detained without trial. Remember that Amos was detained before his trial and if he had been found innocent he would not have been able to get that time back nor to sue for false imprisonment because we don’t have that right either. The three men on death row in 1989 (the so called coffee-shop murders) whose innocence my late father proved, were not able to sue for three years of wrongful imprisonment although I suppose they were happy to get out with their necks unbroken.
Our legal system is based on the UK system and the UK provides all suspects, not just a juvenile, with the right to have a lawyer present during interrogation and to have access to a lawyer immediately in most cases. You have the right not to answer questions without a lawyer present and the State pays for a lawyer if the suspect can’t afford one. (Here only capital case defendants get a pro-bono lawyer.) However children are usually questioned in a less formal setting such as at the school with an appropriate adult alongside. The US system has similar safeguards and Juveniles have the right to have a parent or appropriate adult present as well as their Miranda rights.
A case concerning a 13 yr old burglary suspect in the US
This case was recently ruled upon by the Supreme Court. A police officer went to the 13 yr old boy’s school, removed him from class and placed him in a conference room with the door closed and two school administrators present. However the officer failed to give the boy a Miranda warning or inform him that he could leave the room at any time prior to beginning the questioning. The boy later wanted to get the statements he made in the conference room thrown out and the Supreme Court agreed with him.
“The Court recognized the fact that, because of their relative immaturity and lack of experience, children “cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults”.
Since minors’ comprehension of their situation differs from that of adults, the Court reasoned, their understanding of when a questioning constitutes custody will also differ. Minors may experience more acquiescence to authority, and so may require Miranda notifications in situations that would not trigger the Miranda requirement for adults.”
Here is some advice given by the Queensland Government to citizens who are arrested:
- You have the right to remain silent, whether you have been stopped in the street, have agreed to go to the police station or are under arrest.
- You must go with police only if you are formally arrested for an offence or formally detained for questioning about an indictable offence.
- Otherwise, if police ask you to go with them to the police station, you can refuse
- The police can’t force you to go to the police station without arresting you. If they insist that you go with them, you can ask if you’re under arrest. If not, you don’t have to go.
Even if you agree to go to the police station, you have the right to remain silent.
Police have to:
- provide an interpreter where needed
- have a parent or an independent person present when questioning a child about a serious matter
- allow a person with impaired capacity to speak with a support person and not continue with questioning if the person does not have the legal capacity to be questioned. If police realise that a person has impaired capacity only part way through the interview, they must suspend questioning to organise a support person
- Police must allow you to contact a support person (a friend or relative) and a lawyer, and arrange for them to be with you during your formal interview. Police can’t listen to your conversations with your lawyer.
Children should always ask if they can have an adult (who they like and trust) present with them in an interview.
Sometimes police can question children without another adult present. However, if a child has been charged with an indictable offence, the court can refuse to consider statements from children (16 years and under) if an independent person was not present at the interview.
Finally this is a ruling from the UK courts on the treatment of 17 year olds and how they must also be treated as children.
17 year olds in police custody to be treated as children, says the High Cour
In a judgment which strongly upheld children’s rights under the UNCRC, Lord Justice Moses (sitting with Mr Justice Parker) has held that the UK government’s practice of treating 17 year olds as adults, the failure to inform the parents of their child’s arrest and the failure to provide an independent, appropriate adult to 17 year old children when detained and questioned at a police station about alleged criminal offences is “inconsistent with the UNCRC and the views of the United Nations Committee of the Rights of the Child.”
The judgment concluded that:
“… it is inconsistent with the rights of the claimant and his mother, enshrined in Article 8 [European Convention on Human Rights], for the Secretary of State to treat 17 year-olds as adults when in detention. To do so disregards the definition of a child in the UNCRC, in all the other international instruments to which the Strasbourg Court and the Supreme Court have referred, and the preponderance of legislation affecting children and justice which include within their scope those who are under 18. The Secretary of State’s failure to amend Code C is in breach of her obligation under the Human Rights Act 1998, and unlawful.”
I think it’s clear that Singapore treats its children like miniature adults and its adults already enjoy very few rights compared to other advanced democracies. The President of the Law society was quite right to bring up the lack of protections in our system for children. As Benjamin was only 13 years old it is clear that in a country with Rule of Law his confession would have been thrown out by a Court because there was no Independent adult present at the Interview. This is what Shanmugam does not want you to know. That the manner of Benjamin’s detention, removal from school, questioning and statements obtained would all have been thrown out by a proper court, in a proper decent democracy and therefore the seriousness or not of any CCTV images is completely irrelevant.
We urgently need legal reforms to safeguard the rights of suspects and further protections for juveniles, the mentally incapacitated and specially vulnerable. More immediately Shanmugam owes Benjamin’s parents an apology. I hope Thio Shen Yi stands up for his principles and pushes back on Singapore’s breaches under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Rest In Peace Benjamin