The Straits Times did the right thing to put the story on the front page, for it is a very serious case.
Ismil Kadar was acquitted of murder by the Court of Appeal after spending six years in jail facing the death penalty. The judges slammed the police investigators and the prosecution for more than sloppiness in building the case against him, questioning their motives as well.
Ismil and his brother Muhamad Kadar had been found guilty of murder by common intention in the 2005 killing of an elderly woman, Tham Weng Kuen, 69, while robbing her home. Her bedridden husband was in the flat as it happened, fully aware of what was happening but unable to help his wife.
Describing the case as ‘extraordinary’, Justice V. K. Rajah said the 42-year-old’s confessions were obtained ‘in troubling circumstances’ which appeared to be deliberate breaches in procedures rather than mere carelessness.
He added that investigators had been ‘less than thorough’ and said there was a ‘startling lack of any objective evidence’ that tied Mr Ismil to the crime.
— Straits Times, 6 July 2011, Man accused of murder freed after 6 years in jail, by Selina Lum
The judges also noted that there was a witness statement from the bedridden husband that there was only one intruder — and he had a sightline to the front door from his bed — which was suppressed by the prosecution until the very last minute and then dismissed by the trial court when it would have exonerated at least one, if not both the brothers.
This case is so important that I am imaging two articles from the Straits Times and one from Today newspaper here, rather than quote them at length. Straits Times article #1; Straits Times arrticle #2; story from Today newspaper.
Troubling questions arise at three different levels:
The first is that of police procedures. As the news reports indicate, their work is undisciplined and apparently unsupervised. In this particular case, the appeal judges criticised the way interviews were conducted in vehicles and statements recorded on slips of paper, before transferring to proper records days later. No precautions were taken to ensure that the accused, with below-average IQ, understood the questions and implications, nor that he was free from under the influence of drugs when interrogated.
It’s all very well to say we have neat procedures on paper — though even the fairness of these are disputed as I will come to further down — but when in even such a serious case as murder they are wantonly flouted, it is hard to deny that there exists a widespread culture of impunity and disregard for integrity throughout the police force.
Such would be scandalous anywhere except that our official departments can usually rely on a compliant mainstream media never to do investigative journalism. The report in today’s newspaper is exceptional because we have one institution (the courts) criticising another (the police) and the newspaper is thus free to report (in neutral language) the criticisms. But don’t hold your breath about reporters digging deeper if see how far the cancer has spread.
Yet it is precisely this immunity from public and media scrutiny that breeds the sense of impunity in the police.
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A small but related digression:
Just last night I was looking at a police statement made by a migrant worker from Bangladesh and I was appalled how badly it had been done.
The worker had had his foot crushed by a lorry that ran into him while he is cycling to work. Coming to a bend in the road, the lorry, perhaps travelling at speed, misjudged the curve and instead of turning within its lane, leaned in towards the worker and knocked him down.
The police statement recorded that the worker had missed his company transport that day and that was why he was going to work on a bicycle. This was pure fiction. The company did not provide transport at all; he always went to work on his bicycle after riding the train to Marina Bay Station. The fact that the guy had his bike parked overnight at the station would tell you it was his regular route. Yet, by making it sound like the worker should not have been cycling on the road in the first place, it could potentially reduce the lorry driver’s culpability.
The other thing that the worker told me as he related the accident to me was that the lorry came from behind him, but the police statement made no mention of that, and instead gave the impression that the lorry and bicyclist had been travelling alongside each other.
No interpreter was provided to the worker when he was interviewed. He was unable to fully comprehend what the police constable wrote in English, and in any case, his signature was nowhere to be found on the statement even though it says he should sign it. This may be a small case compared to murder, yet the statement would be central to the worker’s legal claim in future. With a foot crushed, his future chances of earning a decent living is severely affected.
It shouldn’t matter whether a case is major or minor. Quality standards in police work must be maintained at all times.
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The Law Society had issued a report recently pushing for changes to police procedures. Among the many proposals, it argued that an accused must first be given an opportunity to consult with counsel before being interviewed, and that all interviews should be audio-taped. In serious cases, they should be videotaped.
Has the government adopted these recommendations? I don’t know because I have not been following the matter. Can any reader advise?
In the Ismil Kadar case, the Court of Appeal also had harsh words about how the prosecution did its work.
In a strongly worded 152-page statement, the judges also criticised the way prosecutors had conducted the trial, particularly, the “disappointing” decision not to disclose [the husband] Mr Loh’s three police statements to defence lawyers until 18 months into the trial.
Mr Loh had given detailed accounts in those statements of the sole assailant’s appearance and the one-hour attack on his wife. The judges stressed that the duty of prosecutors was “not to secure a conviction at all costs” but to “assist the court in coming to the correct decision”.
— Today newspaper, 6 July 2011, Elderly houseiwfe’s murder: Man freed, brother to be hanged, by Teo Xuanwei
The Law Society had also recommended that police and prosecutors be required to provide fuller disclosure of the evidence they had against accused persons, including such evidence that could potentially exonerate them.
Finally,at the third level, the case is troubling because of the questions it raises about all other capital cases. Ismil had the benefit of a persevering Legal Aid lawyer helping him over six years. How many Legal Aid lawyers would show the same degree of dedication? If a man can be so easily convicted and sentenced to hang by a trial court even when the prosecution case looks as sloppy as this, how can any one of us be sure that there aren’t other cases of wrongful conviction?
It is true that Singaporeans seem to have a high level of trust in our governmental and judicial institutions, but I think that trust is misplaced. It is the result of a mainstream media singing the praises of these institutions over decades. Put their work under a microscope, and it can look sickening rotten.
Once in a while a superior court might do the right thing and uncover a nest of worms, but just because this happens occasionally is no cause to believe that all worms have been dug out.
Note, for example, how in acquitting Ismil, the court reaffirmed the conviction of his brother Muhammad, who now joins death row. Yet if police work was sloppy with Ismil’s case, wouldn’t it stand to reason that it was likely also sloppy with Muhammad? Wouldn’t it have been the same investigation team that interrogated him? When the court said there was no objective evidence, how reliable can the conviction of Muhammad be?
As at the time of writing, the written judgement is not yet on the Supreme Court’s website. [Update 12 July 2011: The judgement is now available here in Microsoft Word format]. Perhaps it will reveal more of how the appeal court came to reaffirm the conviction of Muhammad. Let’s wait and see.
But what is as clear as day by now is that the police and the prosecution do not deserve our trust.