A few days ago, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) issued a letter of warning to filmmaker Lynn Lee for “having committed contempt of court”. It asserted that two video clips released by her, featuring interviews with former bus drivers He Junling and Liu Xiangying, “amounted to contempt of court by creating a real risk of prejudice to criminal proceedings which were pending then”. Choo Zheng Xi and Andrew Loh, writing respectively at The Online Citizen and Andrewloh.com, have criticised this move by the AGC, albeit from slightly different angles. Both however are concerned that this represents a usurpation of judicial power by an executive branch.
I can imagine a retort that the AGC’s warning is just that: “rather than proceedings in Court to commit Ms Lee for contempt of court” (words from the AGC’s statement), it is a warning that prosecution will occur if she repeated her act. That said, the opening sentence in the statement itself — “for having committed” — would undermine such a rebuttal; it sounds like passing judgement. Amazing how AGC lawyers can’t even write clearly!
Quite apart from whether the AGC overreached, there still remains the issue of police beatings. The warning to Lynn flows from the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) finding that allegations of improper police behaviour toward the drivers are false. Once they are so categorised, it becomes easy to accuse Lynn of an illegitimate, subjudice attempt to sway the court.
But just because the MHA has said the two drivers’ allegations are baseless doesn’t mean people have to believe they are baseless. I, for one, do not. You can’t force me (and I am sure, many others) to believe. So long as I don’t believe they are baseless, then neither am I going to approve of the consequential action — the warning issued to Lynn Lee.
Very short on details
He Junling and Liu Xiangying were among 171 bus drivers that SMRT Corp had recruited from China and who refused to show up for work late November 2012 because of various grievances. The government promptly called it an “illegal strike”, and these two men were among five who were charged in December for instigating it. He Junling’s and Liu Xiangying’s case had not yet gone to trial when, in January 2013, Lynn Lee released the videos in which they spoke about being physically beaten by the police during interrogation.
After these allegations of police maltreatment surfaced, the police’s Internal Affairs Department was compelled to investigate. Lynn herself was hauled up for questioning three days in a row; on one of those days, she spent about twelve hours under interrogation and her computer was taken apart.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a statement on 20 April 2013 that “allegations of police abuse by He Junling and Liu Xiangying . . . were baseless.” Much of the ministry’s argument centred on how “prior to the video, neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”, and how, when eventually interviewed about their allegations, these “details of the alleged abuses . . . were found by IAO to be inconsistent.”
Firstly, it is entirely possible that He Junling and Liu Xiangying wanted to be strategic about when and where to speak about police beatings. Just because they had plenty of opportunities to do so in December, does not mean they thought it wise to do so, or that they trusted the police to speak to them about being beaten by police.
Secondly, we have no idea what these “inconsistent” details were. Are we expected to take the MHA’s word on that? I think the MHA overrates its own credibility. As I said earlier, just because you say so, doesn’t people have to believe you. Moreover, a closer reading of the MHA’s statement leads me to believe that in fact there were no inconsistencies. Partly, it is because the statement gave no details . . . except one. The MHA’s statement alludes to this: “He’s statements were contradictory: He retracted his allegations but yet maintained that the allegations were true.”
In a further press statement dated 26 April 2013, MHA tried to deal with public criticism by repeating this line. It said, “He Junling in fact withdrew his allegation and then contradicted himself.”
I spoke to an activist who remained in contact with He Junling, and it was explained to me that what the driver agreed to do was to withdraw the complaint, while insisting that words be added to his withdrawal statement saying that even as the complaint was being formally withdrawn, he still stood by the veracity of his tale of being beaten.
This is an important distinction which the MHA tries to twist to its propagandistic advantage. Someone, for example, can cheat me, and after filing an official complaint I can choose to withdraw that complaint, perhaps for strategic reasons; but it doesn’t mean that the cheating incident didn’t occur or that I fabricated the story that so-and-so cheated me.
In this case, perhaps He Junling withdraw his formal complaint because he wanted to stop the investigation and save Lynn Lee from further persecution?
Since this was the only “inconsistent” detail mentioned by the MHA in its public statement — even though, as I have explained above, it is not “contradictory” at all — it leads me to believe there were no other inconsistencies.
In a he doth protest too much way, the 26 April statement continues: “He Junling now repeats his claim that he had been ill-treated but again gives no details. Either he makes a police report and substantiates his allegation with evidence or the allegations must be regarded as unfounded and spurious. He cannot have it both ways – casting a smear without having to offer any proof.” Again I find this very troubling. Is He Junling supposed to offer “proof”? What are investigators for?
I have seen this attitude again and again from the Singapore Police. Complainants are expected to bring their own evidence and proof otherwise the police can’t be bothered to do their jobs. You’ve been robbed, you say? Bring me your robber and proof. It’d be nice if you handed over a videotape showing the robbery in action and the robber’s fingerprints and identity card.
More seriously, it reflects a nasty People’s Action Party tactic. They tightly control information, in this case access to the police officers who interrogated the drivers and who are alleged to have beaten them. And yet, they shift the onus of supplying detailed information (“proof”) to the opposing side. Failure of the other side to provide that “proof” is then used to cast aspersions on them.
No independent open enquiry? No right to public trust
There is something else about the MHA’s statement which I find troubling: Whilst the 15 Feb 2013 interview of the two men was done in the presence of their lawyers, additional interviews on 27 Feb and 20 March were not. The two men were by then in jail. And it was in the last interview (without lawyers present) that He Junling “retracted” his allegations.
When police brutality is at issue, the enquiry and investigation must be open, transparent and conducted with scrupulous attention to due process. This investigation met none of those standards.
Firstly, it is deplorable that the MHA chose to investigate itself, rather than open itself to independent eyes.
Secondly, other than a one-page statement, it offered no details into what it found. Why not publish the full transcripts of all interviews? The full timeline? Better yet, why didn’t it video all interviews it conducted during the investigation and publish them?
Thirdly, as mentioned above, it went around interviewing the drivers without their lawyers present.
An independent inquiry should have been set up. It should also have had the brief to recommend better processes to prevent any possibility of police brutality in future. It is quite shocking that even now, arrested persons have no right to counsel, and police interviews are not video-recorded.
Instead, all we have at the end of this shoddy process is a one-page statement denying that anything went wrong, yet containing within itself clues that both the process of investigation and its outcome statement were little more than a determined exercise in protesting innocence.
I don’t believe it had been done right. And so long as I have no confidence in that investigation, I can only see it as a travesty of justice to accuse Lynn Lee of contempt of court.