“The death penalty subject was not something I went looking for, in fact I didn’t know much about the death penalty or [mandatory death penalty]. Then it found me.” – Kit Lim, Malaysian filmmaker
It’s 2013, and Yong Vui Kong is still on death row in Changi Prison. The campaign to save his life is ongoing, and small changes to the law are giving us a little more hope. In the meantime, his story continues to reach people, challenging them to reflect upon their own views on the death penalty and its place in society. Malaysian filmmaker Kit Lim is just one such person.
“I came across Yong Vui Kong’s case somewhere in 2011. I was working a nine-to-five job then to finance my Master’s studies when I came home one day and read one of his letters online,” Lim writes in an email to Second Chances. “It was the seventh letter where he made amends with his father but by then he was on death row. That one really pulled at my heartstrings and all these images came floating into my mind.”
Inspired by Vui Kong’s “dignity and remorse”, Lim decided to make a film about the death penalty. Entitled ‘Letters from Death Row‘, the film’s goal is to encourage society to re-examine this archaic form of punishment.
“I hope to produce a cinematic experience with a captivating storyline, compelling characters and gripping emotions that will not lull audience into passivity but encourage discussions on the mandatory death penalty and pave the way for change.”
But it’s not easy to make a film, and Lim has had trouble securing sufficient funding. Undeterred, he is planning to launch an online crowd-funding campaign towards the end of March.
In a letter responding to Mr M Ravi, counsel for Mr Yong Vui Kong, the Court of Appeal has revealed two further charges made against Chia Choon Leng, the alleged drug syndicate mastermind in Yong’s case.
The two charges do not relate directly to Yong, and the Prosecution has all along declined to disclose them on the basis that they are irrelevant.
This latest twist in Yong’s case goes some way to painting a clearer picture of how much more culpable in the drug syndicate Chia was.
The two charges revealed against Chia were for trafficking an amount of heroin that triggered the death penalty.
More interestingly, the person Chia is alleged to have trafficked the drugs to was one Koh Bak Kiang, whose judgment is actually published and a matter of public record.
In Koh’s judgment, District Judge Wong Keen Onn noted that Koh had acted on Chia’s instructions and that Chia had “recruited him to run Chia’s or one of Jessie’s (Chia’s wife) errands. The errands included collecting and delivering small quantity (sic) of drugs”.
Justice Wong further noted that Chia seemed to have been part of a syndicate and that he and his wife were the “two persons who were planning and giving instructions”.
For reasons unknown, Chia never stood trial for these two, or any of the other 26 charges against him.
Yong’s latest appeal to the Court of Appeal is premised on alleged unequal treatment meted out to him vis-à-vis Chia.
In arguments before the Court of Appeal and filed in Court, Mr Ravi has submitted that it is a violation of Yong’s right to equal treatment under Article 12 of the Constitution of Singapore for Yong to be prosecuted under an offence carrying the mandatory death penalty while Chia, who was alleged to have been close to the criminal apex of the drug syndicate, is currently held in executive detention despite the Prosecution initially preferring up to 26 charges against him for trafficking and other drug related offences.
The Prosecution has resisted the disclosure of the other (nearly 20) charges against Chia on the basis that these charges are not relevant to the issues Yong has raised before the Court of Appeal. Mr Ravi makes the argument that this view of culpability is too narrow, and that the surrounding charges would clearly show (as in Koh’s case), Chia’s obviously greater culpability in the entire criminal enterprise than Yong.
In response to Yong’s current application, all the Prosecution has revealed is that the reason for the withdrawal of the 5 charges made against Chia in relation to Yong was because of ‘insufficient evidence’. They have also refused to justify their decision to charge Yong with a capital crime, but not Chia.
The one who got away.
Of particular note in Koh’s judgment is the fact that Koh had his charge reduced for testifying against Chia: Koh was charged with trafficking 14.99 grams of diamorphine. In sentencing, the Judge also took into account and gave “substantial weight” to the fact that Koh was willing to be a prosecution witness.
This is significant for Yong as part of his argument hinges on the fact that he was at all times a compellable witness against Chia and could have, under appropriate conditions, testified against Chia. He merely expressed a concern to testifying in open court for fear of his family’s safety.
Under this argument, Yong should have been given an opportunity to take advantage of the same opportunity that Koh did and it was unreasonable for the Prosecution not to allow him to do so given the obvious public policy reasons for capturing someone higher up in the syndicate chain.
After all, in his statements to the police, Yong identified Chia as the person who supplied him with the drugs to bring into Singapore. During his trial, Yong also repeatedly referred to Chia as his ‘boss’.
The newly revealed charges raise many more questions that the Prosecution has yet to satisfactorily answer.
How could the Prosecution not have sufficient evidence against Chia in Yong’s case if there were ample findings of fact through Koh’s case that Chia was pretty high up in a drug syndicate hierarchy? Surely this, combined with Yong’s evidence, would be sufficient to secure a conviction against Chia in Yong’s case?
Finally, the fact that the Court has now taken the initiative to disclose an additional two charges against Chia to the Defence makes it untenable for the Prosecution to continue asserting that the remaining 20 or so charges against Chia are irrelevant.
If the Court of Appeal finds the charges relevant enough to disclose, shouldn’t the Prosecution?
As I am writing this, it is being announced that Troy Davis has been executed, time of death 11:08pm (time in Georgia). Despite affidavits from witnesses recanting their statements, despite allegations of testimony extracted under duress, despite doubt cast on his guilt for about two decades, despite campaigns and protests all over the world, Troy Davis is dead.
Activists, campaigners and followers of his case say that this is the perfect example of all that is wrong with the death penalty.
From what I’ve seen since I’ve been involved with the anti-death penalty campaign, I have to agree. The death penalty in itself is manifestly unfair. And although we saw the injustice in Georgia today, there is injustice to be found within many death penalty cases all over the world.
Yong Vui Kong – On death row while his boss walks
In Singapore, Yong Vui Kong’s case is one that has been fairly high profile, out of all the death penalty cases. He has been on death row since 2008, and is now in the final stage of the process, awaiting a response to his clemency petition submitted to the President. If clemency is denied (and not one clemency has been granted in the past 12 or so years), he will be taken from his cell one Friday morning and hanged by the neck until dead at 6am, for a crime he committed when he was barely 19 years old, poor, naive and illiterate.
Meanwhile, we received news that the man who had recruited Vui Kong is being detained under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.
NOTE: The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, or CLTPA, allows for people to be detained without trial if there is suspicion that he/she has been involved in criminal activity. However, if there is insufficient evidence to charge that person, he/she must be released.
This point was brought up by Ms Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party in Parliament last year. Then-Defence Minister Wong Kan Seng confirmed that someone from the same syndicate as Vui Kong (whom we now believe to be his boss) is detained under the CLTPA.
Strangely enough, Mr Wong said that the CLTPA is used when there is “a lack of evidence that can be adduced in court, typically because witnesses are unwilling to testify for fear of reprisals”. But how can this be the case when it comes to Vui Kong’s boss? Haven’t we already got a witness – Vui Kong himself – in custody?
In fact, Vui Kong is not the only witness we had in custody. There used to be another boy in the cell next to his. His name was Robin Low, but Vui Kong called him Xiao Hu (??). Xiao Hu was also from Sabah, from a similarly disadvantaged background. Xiao Hu had been recruited by the same man who had recruited Vui Kong.
Xiao Hu has already been executed, dragged out of his cell screaming and crying one Friday morning.
It is incredibly unfair that while the recruiter is being detained without trial and will probably soon be released due to “a lack of evidence”, drug mules at the bottom of the food chain like Xiao Hu and Vui Kong are waiting for death. Vui Kong says that no one had ever even asked him about his boss, or whether he would testify against him. And so the man will walk, while Vui Kong waits to be hanged.
I am not saying that Vui Kong’s boss should also be executed. But I ask you this: is this justice? Is this what Singapore calls “a tough stance on crime and drugs”?
Cheong Chun Yin – “Immaterial” that investigators did not make “adequate efforts”
When Cheong Chun Yin was arrested for drug trafficking, he was shocked. He had been under the impression that he was smuggling a some gold bars for a friend wanting to evade tax. He had been so sure that he wasn’t committing any serious offence that he left a photocopy of his passport and his travel itinerary in the suitcase when he handed it over in Singapore.
During interrogation, he cooperated fully with the investigating officers. He gave them the name of the man – “Lau De” – who had convinced him to go to Burma, who had arranged all the travel details and the handover of the suitcase. He described the man’s physical appearance, and even gave them the contact numbers he had used to get in touch with this man.
The officers made no attempt to trace this man to corroborate Chun Yin’s story or investigate further. In the written judgement of his trial, Judge Choo Han Teck said that it was “immaterial that the CNB did not made adequate efforts to trace Lau De or check on his cell-phones.”
When it is “immaterial” whether “adequate efforts” have been made during the investigation before a punishment as final and irreversible as the death sentence is passed, can we really say that justice has been served?
Roslan bin Bakar – Arrested a month after the fact without any drugs on him
Roslan bin Bakar was arrested at his step-brother’s house a month after the alleged crime, with no drugs on him. He was charged with drug trafficking based on the testimony of three others who had been seen at the scene and arrested on the day of the crime. Up till today his story has been consistent – he had not even been there, and had nothing to do with it.
During the trial, Roslan provided an alibi that was backed up by his step-brother. However, Judge Choo Han Teck did not believe it, saying that his step-brother “appeared a little too anxious to provide an alibi.”
Although officers of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) had been monitoring everyone’s movements, not a single CNB officer could testify that Roslan had been at the scene. A fourth man, Norzainy, who had been arrested with the others testified that Roslan had not been there. However, the judge said, “I am mindful that Norzainy was trying his best not to identify Roslan, but his denial, inserted in the rest of his evidence and that of the others, strengthened the prosecution’s case against Roslan.”
Of those who testified against Roslan, one had his capital charged reduced, and admitted that “the reduction of the [capital] charge acted as an inducement for him to testify against Roslan.” Another had his capital charge withdrawn with a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.
Just like in Troy Davis’ case, there is too much doubt in Roslan’s, and very little explanation as to why the State is so eager to execute while questions remain. We’ve tried looking, but we haven’t been able to find any written judgement from the Court of Appeal explaining why Roslan’s appeal was denied. His sister, who had been at the verdict, does not remember any oral judgement either.
Vui Kong, Chun Yin and Roslan are not the only ones either. Singapore has hanged so many people. Going through court documents and case files, so many causes for concern can be highlighted. It makes me wonder – how many have we killed while doubts remain?
All three cases mentioned here are in the final stages of the process. All it takes now is a rejection of their clemency petitions (as decided by the Cabinet), and a death warrant signed by the President. And if they are executed, they would have been killed in the name of all Singaporeans. But will we be able to say that justice has been served, or that we are effectively dealing with our problems?