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Why did AGC proceed with contempt of court case involving lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam?

Perhaps lawyers have to be treated differently from bloggers and cartoonists.

Jeanette Tan | August 16, 2017 @ 09:57 am

When the government commenced a contempt of court action against Li Shengwu on Aug. 4, many were briefly ensconced in the flurry of coverage and Li’s sharply-worded reactions and public posts.

Unfortunately, in the midst of all this, most people missed another contempt of court case the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) took out against another Singaporean — Eugene Thuraisingam.

Here’s the backstory:

Eugene is a prominent 41-year-old lawyer who has over the past few years taken up many death penalty cases. He helped many people he represented avoid the gallows.

Between January 2012 and November 2016, he handled 13 capital offence cases — six trials and seven appeals — pro-bono.

As you can imagine, these are always very stressful — simply by virtue of the super high stakes involved (a person’s life, fyi).

Here’s what he said in November 2016 about the capital punishment cases he takes up in an interview with The New Paper:

“The pressure is very high. It’s extremely intense… What most of us do is to take a step back and be objective, because you won’t do the client any good if you don’t distance yourself from the fact that he is facing capital punishment. So know your law well, know the facts well and fight hard to the best of your ability.”

The case of Muhammad Ridzuan

Just after midnight on May 19, Eugene took to Facebook with a rant after his last attempt to appeal and save the life of one of his clients – convicted drug trafficker Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali – was dismissed.

On May 26, the AGC filed an application to commit him for scandalising the judiciary in his Facebook post. It also lodged a complaint with the Law Society.

On June 5, after he was informed by the Law Society that his post was contemptuous in nature, he took down the first post and put up this apology on his Facebook page:

“I had on 19 May 2017, the day that my client Ridzuan was scheduled to have his death sentence carried out made the following statements that are in contempt of court:

‘With our million dollar men turned a blind. Pretending not to see. Ministers, Judges and lawyers. Same as the accumulators of wealth. Hiding in the dimness, likes rats scavenging for scraps. When does the new car come?
Our five stars dim tonight. For a law that makes no sense. A law that’s cruel and unjust. Just as its makers, executors stand.’

There is no basis for me to have insinuated that Judges have subordinated their judicial duty to financial greed or that they are more concerned with, or preoccupied, with acquiring financial wealth and material goods which causes them to turn a blind eye to the injustice of the law they apply.

I unconditionally apologise for making the statements and unequivocally withdraw them.”

An outpouring of sympathy and support from his friends followed, and he repeated his remorse in a second Facebook post the next day:

“I made a mistake. I have owned up to it, accepted responsibility and apologised for it. What has been overwhelming is the love, comfort and warmth which you my friends have shown me here and privately during this very trying and difficult period of my life. Words cannot possible [sic] express how blessed I feel for this and how grateful I am to all of you for your words of encouragement. I hope if the occasion arises I can be as true a friend too! Thank you all!”

Unfortunately, neither of these remedial actions proved sufficient, as news reports broke of AGC charging him for contempt of court on August 5.

Eugene wasted no time in pleading guilty to his charges it seemed, and on August 7, he was convicted and fined $6,000 for what he said in his initial Facebook post.

After news broke of that development, Eugene even took to Facebook again to apologise for what he did:

All this, unfolded really fast, and seemingly beneath the radar of most of the public.

And it is quite curious how things have played out, when compared to two recent cases involving the contempt of court.

The case of cartoonist Leslie Chew

Comic by Leslie Chew, via Demon-cratic.com

Chew is a Singaporean comic artist known for his satirical comic strips that poke fun at various events that take place in and around Singapore.

Between July 2011 and June 2012, Chew published four comics from his “Demon-cratic Singapore” series, which were eventually seen as being in contempt of court.

  1. The first one, published on July 20, 2011, featured four separate cases that appeared to accuse Singapore’s judiciary of unfairness. Three of these portrayed the court as ruling unfairly in favour of foreigners or against Singaporeans, and the fourth appeared to allude to an instance where current Member of Parliament Tin Pei Ling was believed to have posted on her Facebook page in violation of Cooling-Off Day regulations.
  2. The second, published on January 3, 2012, depicted two cases side by side — one showed a celebrity who was sentenced to probation for “beat(ing) someone up”, while the other showed the judge sentencing a national serviceman who went AWOL to five months’ jail. Chew had drawn the phrase, “The Kangaroo Court of Singapore” on the wall behind where the judge was seated.
  3. The third, published two days later, showed what appeared to be the case of opposition politician Chee Soon Juan’s application to leave Singapore, which was subsequently denied. He also drew in other panels what looked to be the case of former Romanian diplomat Silviu Ionescu, who fled Singapore before finally being charged and sentenced in Romanian court, as well as another ang moh (Caucasian) who was charged for an assault on a Singaporean, but was allowed out on $25,000 bail.
  4. In the fourth comic, published on June 16, 2012, he appeared to question the disparity in sentences meted out to people committing similar crimes.

In June 2013, the AGC said it was commencing charges of contempt against Chew, two months after they arrested him on unrelated charges of sedition for two other comics he published on his Facebook page.

And they did. But Chew took down the four comics by August 2013 and released an apology through his lawyers.

The AGC correspondingly dropped their charges against him.

The cases involving Yawning Bread blogger Alex Au

Photo via Before We Forget Facebook page

Alex Au, who runs the blog “Yawning Bread”, had two brushes with contempt of court in recent years.

One happened in 2012, in response to a post he put up about the Woffles Wu case. Clicking that link we just pointed to will show you that he took down the body text of his blog post, and replaced it with images of the AGC’s letter to him highlighting contempt and his published apology.

The second contempt of court case took place a year later, and involved two posts he published on his blog in October 2013.

The first was about two Section 377(a) cases, where two constitutional challenges were filed roughly two years apart (the first was filed in 2010 and allowed to proceed in 2012, while the second was filed three months after the first was allowed to proceed), but the second one was heard in the Court of Appeal before the first.

The second post he wrote was about the case of a Robinsons employee who was allegedly harassed into resigning because he was gay.

He did not take down or apologise for these two posts, though, and took his case all the way to the Court of Appeal, which eventually dismissed it.

He only issued an apology in the light of the judge’s findings that he was in contempt of court for the first post, and paid an $8,000 fine, although even at that point, he continued to deny that he claimed the judiciary was partial in the two Section 377(a) constitutional challenges.

So why ah?

We can’t help but wonder, though — why prosecute Eugene, when he took down the offending post and apologised for it as soon as the AGC informed him that it was in contempt?

As you can see, in Chew’s case, charges against him were dropped after he unpublished his comics and apologised for them. In Au’s case, in the instance where he took down his post and published the AGC’s letter, as well as the accompanying apology, in its place, charges were also not brought against him.

We asked them on the day news broke of the AGC charging him in court, and in reply, we were informed on Monday about some of the submissions they presented that day, during the hearing.

In these documents, they argued that as the late Ridzuan’s lawyer, Eugene’s words on his case would have carried more weight with the average person than with a regular member of the public.

In their submissions, prosecutors also pointed out that Eugene did not publicly criticise the outcome of other capital punishment cases he was involved in, and so the fact that he chose to comment on this one in particular would have led the public to believe there was indeed a miscarriage of justice in Ridzuan’s.

Further, because he is a lawyer, he should know that judges are duty-bound to uphold and protect the law, whatever his views on the law (and in this case, the death penalty) are — so this makes matters worse, they argue.

That said, we turned to their website, on which we found a page titled “Publication of Prosecutorial Guidelines”. On it is an article by Chief Prosecutor Aedit Abdullah, published in The Straits Times on May 22, 2013, but in summary, here’s what their position on this appears to be, in small square brackets preceding the article:

“Calls to publish guidelines on prosecutorial decisions are unfounded, as such decisions are already subject to scrutiny in the court, while publication of guidelines carries risks.”

In other words, they’re saying that if there is a problem with how they decide who to press charges against in court, the Court (i.e. the judges) will be the one to tell them so, either by dismissing the AGC’s case, or deciding a portion of the charges they advanced are not worthy of conviction — especially when the AGC has failed to make a sound enough case to convince the judge of the accused’s guilt.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Here are some equally interesting but totally unrelated stories:

Ways to make the government listen to you

Who looks after our ailing seniors outside of general hospitals?

Top photo via Thuraisingam.com

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to "Hakuna Matata" and a host of other Disney songs. She is also enslaved to Katherine and George, her two cats.

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