• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 4:30am

Given enough rope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
 

Alan Shadrake's first attempt to talk to a state-sanctioned killer turned out to be a disappointment. Over beers in a Manchester pub, the British journalist tried to convince Harry Allen, Britain's last hangman, to shed light on the murky world of life on the gallows.

However, the executioner-turned-publican always stubbornly but politely declined to talk about his career as a hangman, refusing to break the oath he had made to remain silent about how the convicted were sent to their deaths.

Decades later and half a world away, it was with a sense of trepidation that Shadrake rang the door bell of a 10th-floor apartment. It was the home, he hoped, of the chief hangman in Singapore, where the death penalty is still imposed for murder and the trafficking of drugs in specific amounts. Shadrake was about to discover whether he would get the exclusive interview he had long yearned for, or whether his search for an intimate insight into life on the gallows would come to an abrupt end with a door slammed in his face.

Slowly, the door opened to reveal a pair of shining eyes.

'Yes,' the man said, he was Darshan Singh.

What followed was the first of many conversations about the men and women Singh hanged on behalf of Singapore, each interview delivering another anecdote from a life devoted to death.

On that October day in 2005, Shadrake not only gained entry to Singh's apartment and his vivid recollections from almost 50 years of dropping people to their deaths, he also set off on a path that would lead to a first-hand experience of Singapore's justice system. Shadrake, a 76-year-old great-grandfather who suffers from heart problems, will soon discover whether he will spend six weeks in prison and be required to pay a S$20,000 (HK$125,000) fine.

In a decision condemned by free-speech advocates, Shadrake was found guilty of contempt of court last November, for alleging that Singapore's judiciary is neither impartial nor independent in applying the death penalty. In his book Once a Jolly Hangman, which is based on his interviews with Singh and investigations into a number of capital-punishment cases, Shadrake argues that political and economic factors influence how courts apply the death penalty in the Lion City.

Now awaiting the outcome of his appeal, he remains defiant, declaring that he is ready to serve time behind bars in defence of his book.

WITH ITS TROPICAL humidity, litter-free streets and high-rises, the modern metropolis of Singapore is a long way from Gallows Corner in Essex, where British authorities carried out public hangings in the 18th century. Shadrake's childhood home was just a few miles from this notorious site but it was a former British colony, rather than his home country, that would offer up to him a man who hanged people for a living.

Having left school at 15 to become a messenger boy at a London newspaper, Shadrake, the son of a truck driver and a music teacher, has spent most of his career working as a freelance journalist, first in Britain, then in Germany and the United States.

Ironically, Shadrake's initial introduction to Singapore came courtesy of the government that is now seeking to put him behind bars. In 2002, on a trip sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board, he travelled to the city from his home in Las Vegas to write a travel story for a US magazine. He recalls he was wined and dined at some of the city's best restaurants, at the government's expense.

By the time he returned to Singapore the following year, a young Australian man, Nguyen Tuong Van, had been charged with trafficking almost 400 grams of heroin into the city from Cambodia. In Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for anyone found guilty of trafficking 15 grams or more of heroin.

Shadrake began reporting on the case and his interest in the men who carry out the death penalty was soon rekindled.

He came across the name Darshan Singh in a 1995 newspaper report. The article made only fleeting reference to the man who would later tell Shadrake that he had probably hanged about 1,000 people between 1959 and 2006.

After a lawyer confirmed that he had the correct name, Shadrake says he did 'the obvious thing' and opened the telephone directory. Twelve Darshan Singhs were listed. He took a stab and picked his lucky number, seven, which happened to correspond to the Darshan Singh at the closest address to where he was staying. His lucky number delivered more than he could have expected.

'I think Darshan really wanted to be recognised,' Shadrake says. 'So, when I came along and knocked on his door to interview him about the Nguyen case, he was so happy that I wanted to talk to him. And that's how it began.'

The stories Singh shared over the course of eight meetings helped Shadrake piece together the final moments of those condemned to die on the gallows. The hangings would always take place at dawn on a Friday morning, Shadrake writes in his book. Before leading the prisoner to the gallows, Singh would explain the process 'as kindly as possible. He promises they will feel no pain, that he is an expert with many years experience'.

Singh would then handcuff the condemned's arms behind their back and lead them to the gallows, where their legs would be strapped together, to prevent them from struggling. His last words to the prisoner, he told Shadrake, were always: 'I am sending you to a better place than this.'

Singh told him he once wrote to Guinness World Records asking to be listed as the world's most prolific executioner. His highest tally, he said, was 18 men in a day.

Singh's revelations prompted Shadrake to dig deeper into specific cases. He scanned the internet for information, trawled court records and met with lawyers, undercover police officers and families of those who had been hanged.

In an interview in his lawyer's office, he says it was shocking to see the effects of capital punishment on the families left behind.

'They don't just hang the person, they hang the whole family,' he says.

What Shadrake discovered through his investigations led him to allege that 'politics, international trade and business often determine who lives and dies on the gallows'. His book asserts that people at the bottom of the drug-trade chain - usually poor, young mules - are more likely to receive the death sentence than the wealthy and people from countries with which Singapore has sensitive diplomatic relations.

Shadrake's book, which began as the memoirs of a hangman, morphed into an investigation of the system. Once A Jolly Hangman was first released in Malaysia, where Shadrake was living, last June. It was already available in some Singaporean bookshops when he returned to the city for the launch, on July 17.

The Saturday night book launch went smoothly and Shadrake went out afterwards, to celebrate with friends, first at a dim sum restaurant and then a karaoke bar. He went to bed at about 2.30am but there was to be no Sunday morning lie-in. At 6.30am, he says, he awoke to police banging on the door.

'I opened the door very, very slowly and they burst in like bloody commandos. Four of them to arrest little me ... like I was a terrorist or something.'

The police ordered him to get dressed and took him to the Criminal Investigation Department building. There, he says, he slept on the floor, without a blanket or pillow, in between long sessions of questioning. He was released on S$10,000 bail just before midnight on the Monday, without his passport.

In his verdict, the judge found that Shadrake's claims were made against a 'selective background of truths and half-truths and sometimes outright falsehoods'. Although Shadrake admits to a couple of inaccuracies - 'very minor stuff' - which, he says, he has corrected for the new edition, he stands by the book and has refused to apologise.

In statements released after Shadrake's sentencing in November, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said it 'deplores the decision to jail a man who is 76 and unwell, and whose only crime was to exercise his critical powers', while John Kampfer, chief executive of Index on Censorship, described the case as 'another example of Singapore's very poor record on free expression'.

Jeremy Browne, minister of state at Britain's Foreign Office, also weighed into the case, stating he was 'dismayed' that Shadrake had been sentenced to six weeks' jail 'for expressing his personal views on the legal system'.

Shadrake says he knew his book was likely to cause a few ripples but he thought he would be merely barred from Singapore, not arrested.

M. Ravi, Shadrake's lawyer and a leading human rights advocate who has represented a number of people facing the death penalty, says the sentence is among the toughest ever meted out by a Singaporean court for contempt.

'To me, it's extremely harsh,' says Ravi, who argued during the trial that his client's book amounted to 'fair criticism'. Although he expects Shadrake's appeal will be denied, Ravi says the authorities have shot themselves in the foot by convicting the author.

'They popularised this,' Ravi says. 'The client became magnified as a result of their own prosecution against him.'

The book has not been banned in Singapore but has been withdrawn from bookshops.

Media freedom organisations, such as RWB, say there has been a number of cases in recent years where the government has taken legal action against media organisations, journalists and bloggers. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal Asia was found to be in contempt of court and fined S$25,000 for publishing two editorials and a letter by an opposition leader questioning the country's judicial system. The same year, lawyer Gopalan Nair was sentenced to three months in prison for insulting a judge on his blog.

In the listing for last year, Singapore dropped four places on RWB's Press Freedom Index, down to 137 out of the 178 countries ranked according to the degree of freedom afforded to journalists. This places Singapore behind countries such as Zimbabwe, Algeria and Qatar.

'No one should be convicted of a crime simply because he or she wrote a book that speaks out against a political ideology that the Singaporean government, or any government, doesn't agree with,' says Heather Blake, RWB's British representative. 'The mentality is that they provide a very safe, clean country in which to live but with that comes all of the oppression.'

Commentators say a culture of self-censorship has developed among local mainstream publications, prompting more Singaporeans to turn to the internet for information and to voice their opinions. Sinapan Samydorai, director of Think Centre, a Singapore-based civil society-focused group, says Singaporeans are increasingly aware of the international trend towards abolishing the death penalty.

'Shadrake is inspiring young people,' he says. 'I think that is what they don't want but, with the internet and in a globalised world, it's difficult for them.'

Dissatisfaction with the mainstream media led Andrew Loh and three friends to establish the website The Online Citizen, in 2006. Loh, the site's editor-in-chief, says the website provides a forum for discussion of political and social issues.

'We just wanted to express ourselves,' he says.

Loh says the site's online readership has increased in recent years, as more people go online to get 'the other side of the story'.

The website, which is run by volunteers, has not escaped the glare of the authorities. Loh says it was gazetted as a political association in January, meaning it must adhere to certain regulations such as not accepting foreign funding.

'I see that as some sort of an attempt to force us to either close down or to self-censor,' he says.

Although he believes the mainstream media has devoted more coverage than usual to opposition parties in the lead-up to Saturday's election, Loh maintains that censorship has increased.

'I don't think space for freedom of expression has been enlarged.' he says. 'I think it has been curtailed in recent years.'

The Singapore Ministry of Law disagrees.

'There are 5,500 publications, foreign newspapers and magazines in free circulation in Singapore, with nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations based [here],' according to a statement issued by the ministry. 'They are free to report on all issues; the government does not dictate ... what they can or cannot report. However, media freedom in a healthy democracy cannot mean we should allow and tolerate lies, smears and scurrilous allegations. [When] this has happened, the media and reporters responsible have been sued for civil defamation.'

Shadrake, who was convicted of contempt of court, is 'assisting the police with investigations relating to criminal defamation', says the ministry.

As for publicising executions, the statement says, 'All capital sentences are passed in open court and the number of death sentences meted has always been public information ... the media regularly reports on death penalty cases.'

However, anti-death-penalty campaigners claim that is an inexact measure and they have been unable to access government statistics on the number of sentences imposed or executions carried out. Amnesty International's Death Sentences and Executions 2010 report found that, based on media stories, at least eight death sentences were handed down last year.

'We believe that the number is considerably higher,' says Donna Guest, the organisation's Asia-Pacific deputy director.

Worldwide, there has been a growing trend to abolish the death penalty, but, says Guest, most countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos, are bucking that trend. According to Amnesty, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for more executions than any of the other geographical areas it splits the world into, with the mainland estimated to be the world leader in capital punishment.

Samydorai says the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore continuously since 1959, maintains that the death penalty is effective for potential criminals 'who may not be deterred by the thought of mere imprisonment'.

'They see it more as a criminal issue, rather than from a human rights perspective,' he says. 'The PAP government makes no apology for its tough law and order system.'

Guest says there is no evidence to suggest capital punishment acts as a deterrent.

'It's the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,' she says.

Shadrake believes it is only a matter of time before he will be behind bars - the outcome of his appeal may even have been announced as you read this. He says he will refuse to pay the fine, if it is demanded, even though that will result in an additional two weeks in prison.

Shadrake, who has received funding from supporters and human rights organisations to help cover his legal and medical bills, says he does not want to go to jail, but one can't help thinking that a stint behind bars would provide rich material for the book he is planning to write about his trial - not to mention the publicity it would generate.

'If they want to put me in jail for this, then that's their problem and that will come back to hurt them. I'm a very popular guy,' he says with a laugh. 'I've got the whole world behind me.'

Shadrake admits his trial has helped promote his book. A new edition will be released in Australia today and in Britain next month. It is also available online.

'If they had just ignored it, no one would have given it a second thought,' he says. 'I was nobody, now I'm somebody. And it is ridiculous because I don't like this role ... I'm a reporter, I'm not an object of reporters.'

Regardless of the outcome of his appeal, Shadrake plans to keep up his campaign against the death penalty. He believes at least 36 people are on death row in Singapore, based on his discussions with lawyers involved in such cases.

The Ministry of Law would 'not comment on such speculation'.

On the day of this interview, The Straits Times newspaper reported that a 27-year-old Malaysian man had been sentenced to death after being convicted of trafficking 19.35 grams of heroin. With Singh in retirement, it will be up to someone else to hang him.

'He didn't really think he was doing any wrong,' says Shadrake of Singh, who is now in his late 70s. 'He thought these people had committed serious crimes and they deserved to be punished this way - and he was the man to do it.'

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