"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock

Once a Jolly Hangman by Alan Shadrake
The government of Singapore does not want anyone to read this book.

When it was first published in Singapore, police raided [author] Alan Shadrake's hotel room and arrested him. He was taken into custody and interrogated for two full days and two sleepless nights, then charged with contempt of court by "scandalising the judiciary".

As Shadrake awaited trial, he discovered to his discomfort just what happens when a person challenges the Singapore system. He was followed everywhere. Journalist friends reacted with alarm if Shadrake called them from his mobile, concerned that their association with him would then be known to the police. They knew, although at first he did not, that his mobile phone was bugged by the police. Most local journalists did not have the stomach to be seen as opponents of the regime.

His trial in the Singapore Supreme Court started on Monday, 18 October 2010. At the heart of the prosecution was the allegation that Shadrake had committed contempt of court by saying (and, it must be said, illustrating by example) that there was "something sinister: how the Singapore legal system works in secret and how politics, international trade and business often determine who lives and who dies on the gallows". The examples he gives in "Once a Jolly Hangman" point fairly strongly in support of that conclusion.

Shadrake's book is about the use of capital punishment in Singapore.

Singapore justifies its use of capital punishment on utilitarian grounds: the government says that the drug problem in Singapore would be much worse if those caught smuggling drugs, as [Australian drug mule] Van Nguyen was, were not killed by the State. How curious then that this logic dose not extend to cases where Singapore's diplomatic or trade interests are involved.

This is the puzzle Shadrake's book seeks to answer. Singapore's response suggests that the answer has hit a raw nerve. 

-- Julian Burnside, QC, Foreword to the new edition, Melbourne, 2011.

Alan Shadrake, author of 'Once a Jolly Hangman'
Alan Shadrake, author of 'Once a Jolly Hangman'
Once dubbed by The Economist as the world execution capital, Singapore is believed to have one of the highest per capita rates of execution of any country worldwide, thus remaining totally out of step in the move regionally and internationally towards a death penalty-free world. A historic momentum is building from which Singapore chooses to exclude itself.

The UN's 2008 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions as a step towards total abolition has been heeded by an increasing number of countries. Not so by Singapore, however. Over 420 people have been executed there since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking, for which there is a mandatory death sentence [see update here]. A number of countries have mounted protests against the execution of their nationals in Singapore and cases have been raised at the highest level.

Once a Jolly Hangman unearths new or little-known information. The author argues convincingly that only the cases with possible negative political or economic outcomes appear to have succeeded in preventing executions of foreign nationals. In contrast, he exposes the pitiful, hopeless situation of poor, uneducated or desperate drug mules with no important connections. 

-- Margaret John, Coordinator for Singapore and Malaysia, Amnesty International Canada, Foreword to the original edition.

Below are two selected excerpts from Alan Shadrake's Once a Jolly Hangman:


"Please don't let them kill me. I don't understand why they have to kill somebody for something like this." This haunting cry from a terrified young man was ringing in lawyer M. Ravi's ears as he walked through the gates of Changi Prison in the sunlight. He had just said his final farewell to his client Amara Tochi, who was due to hang at dawn the following day. It was a tearful moment for them both. Ravi had done all he could to prevent the killing of this likeable, handsome young man, a talented footballer who had come to Singapore to fulfill a dream. For the 21-year-old kid from a dirt poor village in Nigeria, Ravi was his last hope. He knew he would be dead the next day.

Amara Tochi (left), lawyer M. Ravi (right)
Amara Tochi (left) and lawyer M. Ravi (right)

Earlier that morning, the Court of Appeal refused to commute the death sentences on Tochi and his alleged accomplice Okele Nelson Malachy, a 33-year-old South African, for trafficking 727.02 grams of heroin into the country. Ravi had worked ceaselessly to save Tochi, first in the Appeal Court then, as a last resort, with a desperate plea for clemency from President S.R. Nathan. Tochi said he thought he was carrying African herbs that tasted like chocolate, and even ate once capsule, according to the evidence, to show the police it was "safe", a gesture suggesting either complete ignorance or naïveté.
The court delivered the death sentence after a thirteen-day trial during which even Judge Kan Ting Chin himself raised reasonable doubts about the alleged crime before sentencing Tochi to death.
Tochi had left his poverty-stricken village in Nigeria three years earlier and headed for Dubai hoping to find a football club willing to give him a chance to achieve fame and fortune. He had just turned 18 and had little education, having dropped out of school at 14. But his skill as a player was impressive. He was such a promising player he went to Senegal to join Njambi Football Club, where he so impressed his mentors he was picked up to play for Nigeria in the quarter-final in the West African Coca-Cola Cup. Tochi then returned to his village to plan another career move. He wanted to widen his experience and become a world-class player -- and above all help his family get out of its poverty cycle. A football coach told him there were opportunities in Dubai for a talented, determined young African player like him. With only a few hundred dollars in his pocket he travelled by plane and train to Islamabad in Pakistan to obtain a visa for the Arab Emirates.
There his plans began to go awry. His visa application was refused. He did not have enough documentation and the little money he had was running out. He was stranded and alone in a strange country. "I was in total despair," he wrote in his diary in his cell on death row in Changi Prison on 4 August 2006, six months before he was hanged. "No accomodation, no food and little money," He went to Saint Andrew's Church in Islamabad for help. "Pastor Andy was very kind to allow me to stay," he wrote.
During a Sunday service at Saint Andrew's, Tochi met "Mr Smith", another African from the same Igbo-speaking language group. He told Tochi he was an engineer and even recognised him as the player who missed a penalty that cost his team the match.
"I told him my story. From time to time he used to give me money for my survival and buy me food. I met him again in a restaurant when he told me he could help me get a visa to enter Dubai. He said there was a Dubai Embassy in Afghanistan. He took my passport and we went there together by plane."
Tochi's visa application was again refused. He needed much more documentation from his homeland to prove who he was. Smith assured him all would be well. "Not to worry," Smith kept assuring the youngster. "He said he would take care of me," continued Tochi in his diary. It was clear that he did not fully realise whose hands he was now in. Tochi then described being flown back to Dubai to catch a connecting flight to Singapore, where, Smith assured him, he would be able to apply for trials with the football federation. Smith would pay for the flight and his basic expenses. And, as a favour, would he take some special African herbs for his best friend, a "Mr Marshall"? He was also African and sick with a serious stomach ailment and needed them desperately. In return "Mr Marshall" would give him US$2000 to enable him to enter Singapore on a thirty-day visa -- enough time and money to obtain a long-term work pass and achieve his football dream.
When Tochi arrived at Terminal 2's transit lounge there was no sign of Mr Marshall. He should have been at the pre-arranged meeting point, an ubiquitous Coffee Bean and Tea leaf café. After waiting six hours, he called Smith, who was by then back in Pakistan. He was worried he would be stranded again if Marshall did not turn up with the promised money in exchange for the herbs. Without it, he would be sent back to Dubai, a country that would not let him enter either. His future seemed very dire indeed. But he was assured that Marshall would turn up soon. Exhausted by the wait and travel, Tochi decided to check into the airport's Ambassador Hotel and get some rest. The receptionist noticed he did not have a visa and advised him that he would be sent back to Dubai the next day without one. Tochi explained he was waiting for his friend to arrive with enough money for him to enter Singapore. The receptionist told him she was duty bound to inform the airport police. Twenty minutes passed before the police turned up. While waiting for them, Tochi strolled around the transit lounge unconcerned by the fact that the police would want to know all about him and the "African herbs" he had in his bag. The police came and questioned him. Then they looked in his bag. Tochi's football dreams had come to an abrupt end.
After his trial in the High Court ended on 22 December 2005, Tochi was found guilty and sentenced to death. Marshall's real name turned out to be Okele Nelson Malachy and his true nationality was never determined. He was described as a stateless African who had arrived in Singapore using a forged passport. He was also sentenced to death for trafficking the same 727.02 grams of diamorphine (or heroin) into Singapore even though he never took possession of the capsules.
Ravi, Tochi's second lawyer, fought a losing battle in a frantic bid to save him. He appealed against the sentence and asked for a retrial. This was denied. Then he made the desperate plea for clemency.
"It is disturbing to note," Ravi told me after Tochi was hanged, "that the learned trial judge himself raised reasonable doubts as to his guilt." In paragraph 42 of his judgement, trial judge Kang Chiu said: "There was no direct evidence that he knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that Smith told him that the capsules contained diamorphine, or that he had found out on his own -- but he should have." In paragraph 48, Judge Kang wrote: "I found he had wilfully turned a blind eye on the contents of the capsules because he was tempted by the US$2000, which was a large sum to him. Consequently, even if he may not have actual knowledge that he was carrying diamorphine, his ignorance did not exculpate him."
Against Malachy, he said: "Although there was no direct evidence that the accused knew that the capsules contained drugs, there is no presumption of such knowledge raised against him." He then proceeded to convict both men and sentenced them to death. Ravi maintains that criminal laws of Singapore are unjust.
"They are completely weighted against the accused. For example, confession alone can be relied upon in sentencing a person to death. Also there is no right to pre-trial discovery on accused statements or admissions. It is almost impossible to rebut the presumption where the burden is reversed on the accused to prove his innocence. Further, an accused person can be convicted solely on the uncorroborated and unsupported evidence of a co-accused. The courts here have moreover declared they have no juridiction or powers to reopen a case even if there is fresh evidence adduced before execution."
The night before Tochi and Malachy were hanged, I joined a candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison attended by barely a dozen Singaporeans, testament to the secrecy the government maintains. At the vigil, prominent Singapore-based art critic Lee Weng Choy said he disagreed with Singapore's mandatory death sentence [see update here], which he said takes away the discretionary power of the judiciary. "I also disagree with its justification as a deterrent. The reality is that drug trafficking has not been reduced to zero, neither has drug use," he said.
Changi Prison, Singapore
Changi Prison, Singapore
The execution of Tochi was carried out despite an appeal by Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo who asked Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to commute the death sentence. Lee maintained that Tochi had committed a serious offence under Singapore law and had exhausted all legal options. "We did not take this decision lightly," Lee wrote in a letter. "I realise that Mr Tochi's family will find Singapore's position difficult to accept, but we have a duty to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans, and protect the many lives that would otherwise be ruined by the drug syndicates."
Ravi believes African nationals in particular caught trafficking drugs in Asia get different treatment. He cited a spate of executions which had largely gone unnoticed, and some Westerners like Julia Bohl and Michael McCrea who escaped the gallows. "It's clear", he said, "that Africans are treated in a discriminatory manner and their cases rarely get the attention of the international or local media. Many young African males are lured to Asia by attractive sports and athletic deals but end up being exploited as petty drug traffickers."
As with other protests, the campaigners outside Changi Prison were obliged to gather in groups of no more than four otherwise they would have been arrested for "unlawful assembly". Tochi's red football jersey, which was given to Ravi by Tochi as a farewell present, was hung on the prison fence with many candles lit around it. As the time of the hanging approached, many people who were gathered outside the prison sat down and quietly bowed their heads to say their silent goodbyes to the young Nigerian. "There was no need to kill him," said Ravi angrily. "Even if he had some idea what he was doing was wrong, was it worth snuffing out such a promising young life?"
At dawn on Friday, 26 January 2007 these two African men who had never met before their arrests were hanged simultaneously in Changi Prison. The executions received scant attention in the local and world media. The news was announced in a brief statement by an assistant superintendent at Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau. Tochi's family had not travelled to Singapore to see him because they could not afford the journey, according to an official at the Nigerian embassy. A lawyer representing the family flew to Singapore hoping to pass on personal messages of love from his parents and other family members but even he was denied permission to see Tochi before he was hanged.
I have written very little about Nelson Malachy, the man Tochi was destined to meet at the table in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café and who had never heard of him until he arrived in Singapore from Dubai courtesy of Smith. While investigating all these characters I began wondering who "Mr Smith" really was. Did he matter to the Central Narcotics Bureau who prosecuted Tochi and Malachy on behalf of the Singapore Government? In fact, did Malachy matter to the judge who heard his trial and sentenced him to death? According to court records, Malachy was a stateless person, sometimes described as a South African. But there was no one in the court to speak up for him. No diplomat from the High Commission, no one from his family. As far as everyone was concerned he did not have one. Malachy was defenceless in his anonymity. He was nobody. Just another black man. He did not exist. An he too, was prey to Singapore's judicial system. More importantly, there was no campaigning newspaper in Singapore carefully following the trial of these men which might have sounded the alarm bells that yet another miscarriage of justice might be taking place.


With Singapore's much-vaunted recovery program for drug addicts and Changi Prison proud motto "Captain of Lives: Rehab, Renew, Restart" one would have thought 37-year-old hairdresser Yen Mary Woen would have been in safe, caring hands. As a serious heroin addict, she would definitely have qualified for special treatment in a bid to return her to normality. Yen, a Singaporean, was a victim of a broken home. During her teen years, Yen dreamed of one day finding a good man to marry and raise a family with. Her special wish was to be given away by her father, wearing a beautiful white wedding dress. After her parents divorced her life spun out of control. She began using drugs such as marijuana to ease the pain and mixed with the wrong company. As the years passed she gravitated to heroin and ice. As so often happens, her circle of friends was targeted by the narcotics police after a tip-off and an undercover agent joined in, carefully taking note of what she and the others were doing. Unable to find regular employment she began trafficking the drug to fund her habit.
Changi's Women Prison
Changi's Women Prison
She was charged with trafficking in not less than 30.16 grams of diamorphine, or heroin, on 8 May 2002. A team of Central Narcotics Bureau officers was instructed to look for her near a taxi stand at Block 179 Toa Payoh Central. They saw her arrive in a taxi which stopped a short distance from the taxi stand. "She alighted," one of the officers recorded, "and brought a black sling bag to the boot of the taxi and closed the boot. She then went to meet a male Chinese near the taxi stand while the taxi remained where he had stopped."
The officers moved in and arrested Yen, the man and the driver of the taxi. It was obvious the officers knew what they were doing. The boot of the taxi was opened in her presence.
Yen was taken to CNB headquarters at the police Cantonment Complex and charged with trafficking 120 sachets of diamorphine. Inspector Neo Ling Sim recorded her on-line response: "I did not know there was so much heroin." Subsequently, according to court records, a series of five investigations were recorded from her between 10 May and 20 August 2002. These revealed that on the day of her arrest, a friend "Tua Kang" telephoned her and arranged to return to her some cash and a cheque arising from a football bet; she called her drug supplier "Jack" and ordered a week's supply of twenty or thirty sachets of heroin and some ice from him, and collected and paid for the drugs at Thomson Place. That was when the police pounced.
Yen said that se was "high" at the time of her arrest and in a state of fatigue. She also said she was very frightened and at a loss when she realised there was so much heroin in the bag. She felt that she would not be believed if she said the heroin did not belong to her, and thought that if she admitted that twenty to thirty sachets belonged to her she would evade the death penalty. She also claimed that when she made those statements, "I did not take heroin for a few days and I felt very lousy."
There was no plea-bargaining for Yen while a deal was being worked out. She was found guilty as a matter of course. Judge Boo Bih Li said she had not rebutted the presumption under the Misuse of Drugs Act that she was in possession of the heroin for the purpose of trafficking. Very little was said about Yen's background and how she came to such a dire end.
The government-controlled media gave very little ink or airtime to the case, merely reporting the basic details. No mass media coverage for her, no powerful country or organisation using its muscle to try to prevent yet another judicial hanging -- only a court-appointed lawyer. There were no anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the court when the verdict was announced. Yen didn't stand a chance even in her own country surrounded by millions of fellow citizens who would be too scared, gutless or disinterested to say boo to the system, even if they really know what goes on under their noses. Hardly anyone knew about the case, let alone lifted a finger to help her. She was not a foreigner from a country prepared to use its economic muscle to protect her; she was not one of those they give impossibly long jail sentences to or thrash with the rattan; she did not come from the higher echelons of society and live in the nicest parts of the city.
Singapore's Court of Appeal
Singapore's Court of Appeal
It was unfortunate for Yen that she was born to a poor family in a less salubrious neighbourhood -- a million miles from the likes of Sentosa, Goodwork Park and Balmoral Park. She needed the money only to fund her habit. She and two co-conspirators had been under surveillance. Undercover officers had been watching their every move, waiting for the right time to strike. Yen was quickly tried, sentenced to death and hanged soon afterwards with hardly anyone in Singapore knowing about her plight.
As ever, there were no campaigning journalists at the Straits Times, the New Paper or Today demanding a better deal for her, no account of her sad life that came to such a tragic end.
Yen's case was reported only briefly in the local press and there was no official general discussion about the merits of capital punishment or comparisons to the way others, more fortunately placed in society, had been treated. It would have been an ideal topic for one of those late evening or Sunday afternoon round table television discussions with a variety of ordinary people saying their piece. There was no top-level wheeling and dealing with high-powered lawyers to save her young life -- no chance for "Rehab, Renew, Restart" for her.
"Yen's life was tragic in so many ways but I don't believe enough was done for her to give her another chance in life," said a friend of the condemned woman. "She may have been a difficult case when attempts were made to rehabilitate her, and there were some when she was younger, but the authorities gave up on her too soon. She was disposed of like a piece of garbage. The break-up of her family devastated her and she turned to drugs to escape from reality. She was not a major trafficker, either, and the profit from what she sold was only to fund her own cravings, not out of greed to enable a super luxury life like the drug barons are able to lead unmolested by the law."
But there was at least one happy moment she experienced shortly before she was hanged. She made her only sister promise to make the white wedding gown she had always dreamed of as a young girl and dress her in it before placing her body in her coffin. She got her wish. "She looked beautiful," said her friend, who, with tears streaming down her face, helped push Yen's coffin into the furnace.

The above excerpts are from:

Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock  – (revised edition)
by Alan Shadrake
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Pier 9 (June 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1742663737
ISBN-13: 978-1742663739

Once a Jolly Hangman may not be readily available online or in bookstores. You may contact Alan Shadrake directly to obtain a (signed) copy of his book for £25 (US$32 - €30) including postage (Secure online payment via Paypal).

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde