Britain's Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne must be a very powerful man. All he had to do was "express dismay" after author Alan Shadrake was sentenced by a Singapore court on 16 November to 6 weeks in prison and fined S$20,000 for expressing his personal views on the legal system. “I look forward to constructive discussions when I visit Singapore next month, which I hope will serve to strengthen further the level of engagement and cooperation between our countries,” was his carefully phrased challenge to his diplomatic counterpart to recognise the right to freedom of expression as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Buried somewhere in the diplomatic jargon must be a coded message that caused the foreign affairs ministry and/or judicial officials to soil their underwear. In an unprecedented move, the Attorney General’s Office made an extraordinary application for the court on 23 Nov, to remind Mr Alan Shadrake of his right to seek leave of court if he wants to "exit the jurisdiction". According to Shadrake’s lawyer M Ravi, normally it is the prerogative of defence counsel to explore this escape route for a defendant not domicile in Singapore, and the AG to gleefully and vehemently contest it. Most don't even bother, given the slim chance of success in the kind of judicial system documented in Shadrake's book. Just ask Swiss national Oliver Fricker.
The turn around couldn't be more dramatic. In passing sentence, Justice Loh had pointed out that the law was not concerned with the sensitivities of the judge ”but whether there was risk in public confidence of the independence of the courts being undermined". He even castigated Shadrake’s apology as “nothing more that a tactical ploy in court to obtain a reduced sentence while mounting a different stance elsewhere.” And there was the veiled threat of being investigated by the police for criminal defamation; for which his passport is being held by the police.
Shadrake wrote in his book that the German government applied maximum pressure on Singapore to save Julia Bohl from the gallows, through the clever ploy of issuing a revised laboratory report that said only 281 of the 687 grams of cannabis found in her possession were pure stuff. The 15 grams of heroin that Amara Tochi from Nigeria was hanged for did not benefit from similar laboratory analysis. If Britain is exerting pressure through Browne, public confidence of the independence of the courts will no doubt be undermined. And additional fresh material will be provided for Shadrake's new book.