Singapore gives jail time to writer critical of death penalty

New York, November 16, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Singapore High Court’s sentencing of British author Alan Shadrake to prison over his book criticizing the nation’s judiciary.

The court today sentenced Shadrake, 76, to six weeks in prison, and fined him 20,000 Singapore dollars (US$15,400) for contempt of court, according to international news reports. He was convicted on November 3 of “scandalizing the court” in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, in which he criticized the country’s use of capital punishment.

Singapore officials have previously used contempt charges against journalists critical of the country’s judicial system, but the jail term against Shadrake is the longest ever issued for this charge, according to news reports that cited the judge.

The author is out on bail, The Wall Street Journal reported. It is unclear whether he intends to appeal the sentence.

“This is an absurd application of a law that should not be used to prevent scrutiny of the branches of government,” said CPJ’s Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “This prison sentence will have a chilling effect on independent media and journalists in a place where the press is already working under constraints.”

High Court Judge Quentin Loh said he imposed the harsh penalty in order to send “a signal to those who hope to profit from controversy,” the Wall Street Journal reported. In addition to the prison term and the fine, the author was also told to pay 55,000 Singapore dollars (US $42,000) for legal costs.

Shadrake’s book questions the impartiality and independence of Singapore’s courts in applying the death sentence. His research drew on interviews with a former executioner, human rights activists, and lawyers, as well as court documents. At his sentencing, Loh said the author had employed “a dissembling and selective background of truths and half-truths, and sometimes outright falsehoods.” Shadrake told The Guardian after his conviction that the book contained a minor inaccuracy but was otherwise “devastatingly accurate.”

Based in Malaysia, Shadrake was arrested in July when he visited Singapore for a book launch. His passport has been seized, and authorities have said that they are also considering criminal defamation charges, according to news reports.

Singapore officials have frequently used contempt and defamation charges against journalists, and have won settlements, fines and damages from the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Economist, and Dow Jones & Co.