Man acquitted again in drug trafficking case, escapes death penalty in new twist 9 years after the incident

Man acquitted again in drug trafficking case, escapes death penalty in new twist 9 years after the incident

Exterior view of Singapore's Supreme Court
File photo of the exterior of Singapore's Supreme Court.

SINGAPORE: A man who was acquitted of drug trafficking and later convicted again on appeal has been acquitted in the final decision by the highest court and will not face the death penalty, nine years after the alleged offence occurred.

Nigerian Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi faced a charge of trafficking almost 2kg (1,963.3g) of methamphetamine found in a black trolley bag he took with him from Nigeria into Singapore in 2011.

He was accused of passing the meth, in two packets, to a woman named Hamidah Awang in River Valley Road.

Four of the five judges on the case found on Thursday (Sep 17) that Ilechukwu did not know there were drugs in the bag, finding that he had been "deceived" unwittingly into transporting drugs.

Only Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang disagreed, finding that the prosecution had proven its case and said that Ilechukwu was a person who "told many deliberate lies".

Ilechukwu had originally been tried with Hamidah, with the trial judge acquitting Ilechukwu of drug trafficking - which draws the death penalty or life imprisonment - but convicted Hamidah of a different charge.

Ilechukwu ran a business selling second-hand electronic goods in Nigeria and had come to Singapore in November 2011 to buy used laptops for sale. 

The black bag had been passed to him by a stranger introduced by a childhood friend and Ilechukwu had been asked to pass it on to someone in Singapore.

When Ilechukwu inspected the luggage bag, he claimed that he found only clothes. The first court that acquitted him had found that the drugs were "well-hidden".

Ilechukwu entered Singapore with the drugs and they were uncovered only after he passed the bag to Hamidah, who was apprehended at Woodlands Checkpoint. 

The prosecution appealed against Ilechukwu's acquittal, and the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, convicting Ilechukwu in 2015.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

However at the sentencing stage, "material evidence" surfaced showing that Ilechukwu was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with dissociative symptoms.

A psychiatrist with the Institute of Mental Health found that Ilechukwu's PTSD was a result of childhood trauma he experienced in his hometown in Wukari, Nigeria. He was nearly killed near his mother's provision shop and witnessed others being murdered.

He had an "abiding image" of being chased by his assailants with bladed weapons and recalls "seeing a lot of blood around a well near the shop into which bodies were chopped and thrown".

As a result, Ilechukwu suffered intermittently from PTSD symptoms through his life, the IMH psychiatrist found.

When Ilechukwu was arrested and later gave statements to the Central Narcotics Bureau, his symptoms were triggered when he was informed that he faced the death penalty associated with the trafficking charge.

This condition might have led him to overestimate the threat to his life, and prompted him to lie to save his life and distance himself from the drugs found in his suitcase, the psychiatrist found.

The Court of Appeal that convicted him found that these lies could be explained only by his guilt. The fresh evidence showed a different interpretation.

The Court of Appeal then ordered a review of the case in light of the fresh evidence, given by the psychiatrist who was a prosecution witness.

The defence, consisting of lawyers Eugene Thuraisingam, Mr Suang Wijaya, Mr Johannes Hadi and Ms Jerrie Tan, had pushed for the review.

THE REVIEW AND THE ACQUITTAL

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, along with Appeal Judges Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash found on Thursday that if they had been presented with the evidence on Ilechukwu's PTSD in 2015, they would not have convicted him.

"For both (Justice) Phang and myself, who were in the (court) which delivered the (conviction) decision, if the evidence (on the PTSD) had been before us then, we would not have held that the lies and omissions in the statements of the applicant tipped the balance and caused us to overturn the acquittal of the judge," said Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin.

"There would have been nothing that tipped the balance and the acquittal of the judge would have been allowed to stand."

Without the adverse inferences based on Ilechukwu's "lies", the other evidence was consistent with him not knowing that there were drugs in the luggage, said Senior Judge Chao. 

In a statement to CNA after the hearing, Ilechukwa's lawyers said it has been "a long and hard-fought pro bono case, involving specialist psychiatric evidence and issues of cross-cultural sensitivities".

"Had it not been for the fortuitous production of the IMH report, our client would have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment. We are delighted that justice has prevailed to acquit our client this morning," they said.

Source: CNA/ll/ta

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