Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam. (Photo: Reuters)
Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam gave his first public comments on the death of Benjamin Lim, outlining in Parliament on Tuesday (1 March) that police procedures were properly followed in the case of the 14-year-old student.
Shanmugam began his ministerial statement with the facts of the case, which began when a police report was filed on 25 January against the boy for alleged molestation of an 11-year-old girl. The minister followed up with a detailed account of the police protocol for interviewing a young person and criticisms of the “falsehoods” that have blemished the police.
Benjamin was found dead on 26 January at the foot of his HDB block, hours after he was interviewed by the police over the allegation. His father later wrote an open letter castigating school authorities and the police for the way his son was treated.
“There is nothing so far to suggest that Benjamin was mistreated by the police,” said Shanmugam. “At this stage, we cannot say, based on the facts which are currently available, that the interview was the specific reason for the suicide.”
Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, said among other things, the police had retrieved CCTV footage showing both Benjamin and the alleged victim of molestation after the report was filed.
Subsequently, five officers who were not in police uniform went to Northview Secondary School, Benjamin’s school, in unmarked cars. Three, who had ground knowledge of the local area, were from the Yishun North Neighbourhood Police Centre, while the other two were divisional officers.
Only one officer spoke to Benjamin about the incident at the school, said Shanmugam. The student was brought back to Ang Mo Kio Police Station by three of the officers, one of whom alighted along the way.
Shanmugam later responded to a question asked by Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza as to why five officers had gone to the school.
“Let’s focus with what happened with the boy, not saying one is the right number. Point is, he must be interviewed in a way conducive for fair neutral approach to obtain the facts,” the minister replied.
Shanmugam showed the House a photo and a floor plan of the open office cubicle where Benjamin was interviewed by an officer at the Ang Mo Kio Police Station.
Benjamin was co-operative throughout the police interview, and afterwards, he had been offered food and drink, which he declined, Shanmugam said. He had not been handcuffed at any time, the minister added.
Based on the evidence available, Shanmugam said, it was likely that Benjamin would have received not more than a warning, and it was unlikely he would have been charged in court.
The minister also slammed the “deliberate falsehoods” that were put out by The Online Citizen (TOC) to “tar the police unfairly”.
“It (TOC) has gone on a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods and has published about 20 articles or so as part of its campaign,” Shanmugam said.
The impression conveyed by the various TOC articles was that the police were lying for saying that the officers went to the school in plain clothes, that the police had intimidated the boy, and that they put pressure on him to admit guilt, he added.
The allegations in the TOC articles implied that they were among the reasons why Benjamin probably committed suicide, Shanmugam said. These allegations may possibly infringe the principles of Sub Judice before the Coroner’s Inquiry is concluded, he added.
Shanmugam also criticised Law Society president Thio Shen Yi for making “some comments which should not have been made”. Thio had said that five police officers spoke to Benjamin, which was false, Shanmugam stated.
Thio’s statements “effectively imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation,” the minister added.
Writing in the society’s Singapore Law Gazette for February, Thio questioned the manner of the boy’s arrest at school. He believed that
“early access to counsel is a necessity in ensuring sustainable confidence in our criminal justice system”.
Shanmugam said he refrained from speaking out on the case until today for two reasons. Firstly, he had done so out of respect for Benjamin’s family and to give them time and space to grieve. Secondly, the Coroner’s Inquiry is “the right forum for relevant facts to be dealt with”.
He said the police could have rebutted the family’s statement in an open letter by setting out their version of events, releasing CCTV footage and the statements taken.
“But is that the right thing to do? To have a public trial by media, at this stage? Rebut the family in public? And add to the family’s grief? The answer is clearly no,” said the minister.
He said Benjamin’s father told the police that the family felt pressured by the public and media attention, with photographers and reporters loitering around their house.
His father requested the police to tell the media that the family did not want their identity and pictures published. The family had also requested for the coroner’s inquiry proceedings to be held in private, which Shanmugam said would be up to the court to decide.
Given the current circumstances, which included repeated “assertions which go to the integrity of the Police Force” and the filing of parliamentary questions by MPs, the minister said he had chosen to speak out now because it was in the public interest to do so.
Shanmugam reiterated that he had asked the Ministry to review the protocol for interviewing minors. Among the suggestions being considered include conducting video interviews and extending the ‘Appropriate Adult’ Scheme, which is to help suspects with mental and intellectual disabilities communicate more effectively with the police, to all minors.
“My Ministry has the responsibility for this protocol that is in place. And ultimately, responsibility is with me, as the Minister… If there are issues with the protocol, the responsibility is mine. Let’s not attack the police officers, who cannot defend themselves. They are doing their job, every day, in difficult circumstances,“ he said.
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