SINGAPORE: Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that a number of "inaccurate statements" have been put out on the circumstances surrounding the death of Benjamin Lim, a 14 year old who was being questioned by the police following allegations of molestation. Some commentators are at risk of falling foul of Sub Judice laws, he warned.
Mr Shanmugam told Parliament that socio-political website The Online Citizen, or TOC, was the source of many of the inaccuracies, having published about 20 articles on the case.
"It has gone on a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods." The campaign practically led people to conclude that Benjamin committed suicide as a result of police actions, he said on Tuesday (Mar 1).
Among the false statements were the insinuations that police were not in plainclothes when they went to North View Secondary School to identify Benjamin; that he was intimidated by five police officers; that he was coerced to make an admission to an offence that he did not commit; that he was not offered food and drink; and that the alleged victim had made a false report.
For example, TOC published an article on Feb 5 saying that police wore attire emblazoned with the word "Police", when investigations found that all officers in the case were in plainclothes, said Mr Shanmugam. "The suggestion is that the police were lying to Singaporeans."
TOC also relied on an online post by someone claiming that her son saw police officers with polo T-shirts with word the word "Police", in the school, when she had in fact got her dates mixed up and had to take down her post.
"People make many statements online. They can be mistaken. That is why there is a Court process - to establish the truth," said the Law Minister.
Mr Shanmugam suggested there was a political agenda to the commentaries.
"It is sad to see this level of dishonesty and politicisation of this matter. Where the police are wrong – we must and will take action. But we should not allow deliberate, dishonest attacks. I have asked my ministry to study how the police and other institutions can respond in future to such falsehoods," he said.
ON THE LAW SOCIETY PRESIDENT'S COMMENTS
Mr Shanmugam also cast the spotlight on lawyer Thio Shen Yi, for the Law Society President's public statements that "effectively imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation".
In a 2,000-word article in the Feb 17 edition of the Singapore Law Gazette, titled Vulnerable Suspects and Access to Counsel, the senior counsel said there is no way to know for certain why Benjamin Lim fell to his death and whether this could have been prevented. But if the death “was avoidable with a better system in place, then it is one death too many”, he said.
Mr Thio's facts were wrong, the Law Minister told Parliament, and as a lawyer he should have taken his cue from expert evidence and assessments from psychologists.
"It will not be accurate" to make a statement at this stage, said Mr Shanmugam.
THE POSSIBILITY OF SUB JUDICE
Mr Shanmugam, who said his ministry had refrained from commenting on the case until now out of respect for Benjamin's family and to protect the alleged victim, said a Coroner's Inquiry was the "right forum" to deal with the relevant facts.
Benjamin's family has asked for the coroner's inquiry proceedings to be held in private. "The AGC will give the request careful consideration. Ultimately it will be up to the court to decide," said Mr Shanmugam.
Until that time, the Law Minister warned that allegations being publicly aired now could be treated as Sub Judice - where cases still before the court could prejudice the verdict.
"Once the coroner announces his findings, both facts and conclusion, then people can offer their viewpoints and criticism on what the police, what my ministry did, or did not do," he said.
"The various pronouncements, suggestions, statements which imply that five officers interviewed him; that the police intimidated, pressured Benjamin, into wrongly admitting to guilt; other allegations, like that police were lying when they said they went to the school in plainclothes; and that these must have been among the reasons why he probably committed suicide - these allegations may possibly infringe the principles of Sub Judice.
"It is understandable when the family says some things. But TOC and its ilk should not engage in this, prior to the Coroner's Inquiry."
As to why he was commenting on the case now, he said that after consideration and consultation with the Attorney-General's Chambers, his ministry has decided to set out the fact to prevent further misunderstanding of the matter.
"The Rules of Sub Judice generally preclude discussions which may prejudice proceedings, but public officials like myself can make statements, if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest - even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained," he said.
However, he said, such discussions as were taking place in Parliament on Tuesday should not become an automatic precedent for the future.
"We will relook the law to see how we can try and achieve this better."