Friday, December 12, 2008

One system of justice for all

Dec 12, 2008

A-G answers criticisms over recent cases involving the rich

By Khushwant Singh & Esther Tan

A PERSON'S wealth, status and political leanings have no bearing on whether they are charged with a crime, Singapore's Attorney-General Walter Woon said yesterday.

The country's top prosecutor said there was only one justice system for all, a comment that followed several high-profile cases involving wealthy Singaporeans that drew criticism from some.

Addressing about 270 members of the legal fraternity yesterday, Professor Woon said the prosecution does not consider whether a suspect is 'rich or politically well-connected' before pressing charges.

He made the comments during a speech on prosecutorial discretion and the quest for justice at the first annual lecture of the Association of Criminal Lawyers (ACLS). It was held in the Supreme Court auditorium.

Prof Woon also brought up a recent case where two Indonesian men were jailed several weeks and fined for arranging to sell their kidneys. The buyer, retail magnate Tang Wee Sung, 56, was fined $17,000 but jailed for only a day.

'Public policy does not allow us to differentiate between buyer and seller,' Prof Woon said.

He added that there had been letters to the newspapers questioning whether Mr Tang should be charged as he was dying.

Mr Tang's health, Prof Woon said, was something to be considered by the court and not by the prosecution.

Prof Woon also made reference to a couple of recent cases that saw grassroots leaders charged with crimes like embezzlement. While in some of those cases, Members of Parliament wrote to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) in support of the suspects, Prof Woon said they did not apply pressure on prosecutors.

The letters do not make a difference in the decision to prosecute, he said.

The Attorney-General said the same standards apply to offenders who are aligned with opposition parties.

'People opposed to the Government expect special indulgence, but they too have no licence to break the law,' he said.

He also disputed claims in the latest ACLS newsletter that said Singapore's system of compounding offences - which allows suspects to pay compensation to the victim and not face criminal charges - could be seen as buying justice.

In the newsletter article, the president of the ACLS, Mr Subhas Anandan, asked why the courts allow for some cases to be compounded while withholding permission in others. This could lead people to assume that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, he wrote.

Prof Woon said that while the process favours the wealthy, a judge had the final say over whether a case could be compounded to prevent 'justice being bought'.

During the question-and-answer session following his lecture, Prof Woon faced questions surrounding a decision in April to allow the wife of a high-profile businessman to settle her case out of court. In that case, 61-year-old Tan Siew Hoon was allowed to pay an undisclosed amount in compensation after she was accused of slapping a Singapore Airlines flight attendant on a Tokyo-bound flight.

Lawyer Tan Spring said this was contrary to the AGC's stance in road-rage cases.

Prof Woon said the parties had reached a settlement but this fact was not made known to the prosecution before the charge was issued.

Prof Woon said that the job of prosecutors is not to secure convictions but to see that justice is served.

'There is no Prosecutor of the Year, with the most number of scalps hanging from his belt,' he said, to the amusement of the judges, lawyers, deputy public prosecutors, law lecturers, foreign diplomats and law students in the audience.

He said that prosecutors first make sure that they, themselves, are convinced of the guilt of the suspect. They then consider if there is enough evidence to secure a conviction and whether that would be in the public interest.

In certain cases, especially where young offenders are involved, rehabilitation may be the better option, he said.

He pointed to the fact that 6,000 petty criminals had been put through a six-month counselling and guidance programme since 1997 instead of receiving a fine or jail time.

Prof Woon also dismissed perceptions that the prosecution would go with a heavier charge to get the accused person to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

He declared: 'If we bring a charge it is because we think it will stick. We're not going to bring a heavier charge as a bargaining chip. This is not a cattle market.'

[Mr Subhas Anandan said that it is good that A-G took the time to explain, and it goes some ways towards convincing him. But he needs further convincing. I think I do too. But yes, it's  good to have at least this public declaration.]

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