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British journalist convicted for condemning death penalty

British author Alan Shadrake stands outside Singapore's Supreme Court in this undated picture
British author Alan Shadrake stands outside Singapore's Supreme Court in this undated picture

The death penalty is still legitimate in Singapore - but apparently talking about it isn't. British journalist Alan Shadrake, who condemned Singapore's use of capital punishment in his new book, has been convicted for contempt, report Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and news reports. He will be sentenced on 9 November when he is likely to get jail time. Sign a petition calling on the government to drop the charges and allow Shadrake to leave the country.

At his trial which opened on 18 October, Shadrake was accused of making comments "against the independence and integrity of the Singapore judiciary" in his book "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock".

The book questions Singapore's use of capital punishment and alleges that well-connected defendants, particularly in drugs-related cases, often get off relatively lightly while the poor and less well-connected are sentenced to death. So a wealthy Tunisian drug dealer goes free while young drug mules from various countries face death.

It also examines the independence of the judiciary, and highlights criticisms of Singapore's justice system by Amnesty International and the International Bar Association.

Contempt of court in Singapore is punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both. Shadrake could also now face separate charges of criminal defamation - which could mean a two-year jail sentence.

According to the UK's "Press Gazette", the judge said in his decision that Shadrake had used a "selective background of truths and half-truths, and sometimes outright falsehoods" in the book.

The court had no interest in stifling debate on the death penalty and was constitutionally bound to protect every citizen's right to engage in such debate, the judge said. But the law would step in when "such debate goes beyond the limits of fair criticism," he went on.

Hema Subramanian, a lawyer for the Attorney General, said last week that Shadrake's book contained "baseless, unwarranted attacks... that directly attacked the Singapore judiciary."

Shadrake's counsel, well-known human rights lawyer M Ravi, argued that the book was a "serious-minded and compassionate examination of the death penalty in Singapore."

RSF is urging the Singapore judiciary to accept Shadrake's innocence and allow him to leave the country. "The book contains no defamatory remarks, no personal attacks or verbal assaults aimed at undermining the operation of the justice system.

"Given that it is simply a critical analysis of the institution and its methods as a result of a rigorous and well-documented investigation, this work cannot constitute contempt of court," said RSF.

Singapore did give Shadrake an option: apologise and the charge would be dropped. But Shadrake refuses to be silenced. In an open letter distributed widely online, he wrote, "I am being prosecuted and facing jail for exposing prosecutorial scandals in Singapore - scandals this PAP [leading political party] dictatorship doesn't want decent Singaporean citizens to know about."

In addition to legal concerns, Shadrake, 75, has serious health problems together with the financial strain of his enforced stay in Singapore, says RSF.

RSF has launched an international petition to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, calling for charges against Shadrake to be dropped.

Sign it here
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