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COMMENT: Why deport the acquitted in Little India riot?

Our blogger asks, "Why repatriate the innocent, the acquitted?" (AFP file photo)
Our blogger asks, "Why repatriate the innocent, the acquitted?" (AFP file photo)

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011. The views expressed here are his own.

“The Government is absolutely committed to upholding the presumption of innocence, as a core principle in our commitment to the Rule of Law,” said Law Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament in 2008. “There is no intention to question or qualify that principle in any way.”

Shanmugam was explaining then-Attorney General Walter Woon’s remarks made earlier in the year that “an acquittal does not mean that an accused is innocent.”

The issue of what it means for the government to “[uphold] the presumption of innocence” as a core legal principle is now being debated again, in light of the government’s deportation of 57 of the foreign workers who were said to be involved in the Little India riot in December.

Some of these were initially charged by the authorities but later had these charges withdrawn against them unilaterally by the prosecution. The courts then granted these workers a discharge amounting to an acquittal and they walked out of court on the same day, after being held for as many as 9 days without access to family or legal counsel.

Days after their acquittal, they were rounded up and were deported all the same.

One of the workers is 22-year old Indian national Rajendran Ranjan. An electrician by trade, he was arrested on 9 December, the day after the violence in Race Course Road. He was charged, on 11 December. Two days later, lawyer M Ravi was appointed by his family as his counsel.

At his second court appearance on 17 December, after having been held in police custody for 9 days without access to a lawyer, the charges against Rajendran were withdrawn. The DPP also withdrew the charges against 6 of Rajendran’s compatriots, some of whom were in tears after the hearing.

The judge had granted them a discharge amounting to an acquittal. This is a significant decision as such a discharge, as opposed to one not amounting to an acquittal, means the prosecution cannot bring charges against the men at a later date. In effect, it means the men had not been found guilty of any offences or criminal acts.

Rajendran too was relieved and glad with the outcome, and he went straight back to work the next day.

He had told this writer that he had gone to Race Course Road on that fateful 8 December night to take the bus back to his dormitory. It was about 10:15pm, he said. When the riot eventually broke out, he was rounded up, along with others, and accused of being part of the violent mob – a charge which he denies.

“I was waiting for bus to go back to the dormitory,” he said. “I wasn’t involved in the riot.”

Barely two days after his acquittal and release from custody, however, he was believed to have been picked up at his dormitory in Jurong by three officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and was taken to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) – at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Despite some frantic attempts by M Ravi to stop Rajendran’s deportation, by trying to contact the Central Investigation Department (CID) and the Singapore Prisons Service (SPS), all to no avail, Rajendran was put on a flight back to India at 9.50pm on 20 December.

His lawyer, M Ravi, filed an application with the courts on 24 December to quash the warning issued to Rajendran by the Attorney General, and to also set aside the deportation order issued by the ICA on grounds that the action of the authorities were a breach of natural justice and in breach of Section 33(2) of the Immigration Act.

The section states that an appeal may be lodged with the Minister by anyone against whom a removal (deportation) order had been made. It is argued that Rajendran was not accorded this right under the law, and that the authorities’ decisions were made arbitrarily and/or unreasonably.

The application also seeks to ask the courts to reinstate Rajendran’s work permit and to permit him to stay in Singapore.

Rebutting the Law Ministry’s contention that “a foreign national who is subject to repatriation… has no right under our laws to challenge the repatriation order in court”, M Ravi argues that Section 39A of the Immigration Act does indeed allow the courts to review certain decisions made by the Minister or the Controller of the ICA.

The court application also said that it is “beyond reason” for the Law Ministry “to invoke this position while deporting someone who had not violated any terms of his employment pass.”

“Indeed, the plaintiff [Rajendran] was even allowed to continue working after the incident which should serve as a testament to his good character and illustrates the absolute faith his employer has in him. He was also given a discharge amounting to an acquittal by the Court which further entrenches this point.”

M Ravi also rebuts the remarks by the Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah, that in the case of repatriation, the court process is “inapplicable”.

“[This] would necessarily mean that any executive decision, however unreasonable, may be executed with impunity,” Ravi said in the court document. “It is irrational and unreasonable that he may be so arbitrarily deported without any explanation except that it was an executive decision not subject to judicial review.”

M Ravi added, “Not only was he denied access to counsel, he was further deported before he had the opportunity to exercise his right of appeal under Section 33(2).”

While the case makes its way through the courts, questions about what a court judgement or decision means is being raised. Indeed, it is the same question raised in 2008 by the remarks of Woon.

For example, what does it mean when the Government says it “is absolutely committed to upholding the presumption of innocence, as a core principle in our commitment to the Rule of Law”; and that “[there] is no intention to question or qualify that principle in any way”?

Indeed, if there is “no intention to question or qualify” the principle of presumed innocence, does it not then follow that an acquittal by the courts should not and must not be, in a sense, circumvented by arbitrary extra-judicial actions by the Government as in this case?

Rajendran, along with his colleagues, were deported in spite of having been granted an acquittal by the courts – and it is worth noting also that it was the authorities who had brought the case before the courts, only to later withdraw the charges later..

Why then are those innocent, whether legally or in fact, being dealt with in such an arbitrary, opaque and irrational manner by the authorities?

What does it meant to be granted a discharge amounting to an acquittal by the courts?

The answer to such a question has far-reaching implications and consequences not only for foreign workers but also for Singapore citizens.

The Government’s explanation so far is unconvincing and seems to be borne out of a preference for saving costs over that of justice being done, and being seen to be done.

"If every case has got to go to court and a judge makes a decision, then repatriation decisions become judicial rather than administrative,” Shanmugam was reported to have said. “Then every foreigner is entitled to stay here at taxpayers' expense, housed here at taxpayers' expense, it could stretch on a year or more."

Surely, justice cannot be subverted by costs considerations, important as those may be. If it were, how then does one uphold the principles of presumed innocence, and allow fair hearings to those accused?

So, the question remains: Why repatriate the innocent, the acquitted?

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