Last week, when the high court of Singapore convicted the British author Alan Shadrake for contempt, he knew that he faced the possibility of imprisonment for the offence. Today that became a reality when the 75-year-old was sentenced to six weeks in jail and fined for "scandalising the judiciary" for remarks in his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. The book includes an interview with Darshan Singh, the former chief executioner at Singapore's Changi prison, who was said to have executed 1,000 prisoners over half a century.
However, the central theme of the book is Shadrake's claim that Singapore's legal system does not accord equal treatment to those suspected of capital offences. The death penalty is mandatory for a number of offences including murder and possession of drugs over a certain amount. In Singapore, as a result, he asserts that the question of who lives and who dies is an arbitrary lottery.
He explains that this is because the manipulation and decision-making takes place at the time of investigation and prosecution. Those who are rich, powerful or likely to have the backing of a significant trade partner escape charges that carry the death penalty. Those who have no influence behind them are charged with capital crimes, convicted, sentenced to death and executed. If his analysis is correct, it makes a mockery of the claim that the law is applied equally to all and without discrimination.
With a population of 5 million, Singapore has one of the world's highest per capita execution rates. While official figures are not produced, according to Amnesty International there have been at least 400 executions over the past two decades.
Shadrake's case highlights two important issues. First, the power to punish a person for contempt on the ground of "scandalising the court" is in many parts of the world a rare offence. Legitimate criticism of judicial conduct is protected by the right to free expression and in turn strengthens public confidence. In Britain the judiciary has been subject to heavy and sometimes personalised criticism arising from miscarriage of justice cases. But it has never sought to invoke a criminal prosecution for "scandalising the judiciary".
The prospect of judges punishing someone in the matter of a book criticising the legal system creates a very dangerous precedent. The judiciary should not be judges in their own cause. To convict a man for writing a book of this nature, and furthermore to imprison him, fails to deal with the issues he has raised; and this is the second point.
Shadrake seeks to place the application of the death penalty in context. He argues that politics, international trade and business determine who lives and who dies at the gallows; and that foreign nationals, whose cases may result in negative political and economic fallout, have succeeded in escaping execution.
He highlights the execution of the migrant Filipino maid Flor Contemplacion – whose treatment brought relations between the two countries to such a crisis point that Shadrake says the next Filipino maid could not be executed – and the case of Julia Bohl, a German woman who escaped the death penalty although she had originally been arrested for possession of drugs that carried a capital charge. Shadrake claims that because of the likely repercussions, the authorities eventually charged her with a lesser offence to which she pleaded guilty and for which she was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.
The book has drawn important attention to serious issues that surely require further investigation. Such disturbing details are of general concern and provide a strong basis for self-criticism by the Singapore government and perhaps even a commission of inquiry. Instead Shadrake finds himself convicted of an attack on the judiciary. He has suffered because he chose to write a book that has brought to the fore the politics of the death penalty. Let us hope he has not suffered in vain.