Alleged computer hacker James Raj is apparently still being held at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Heath, without access to third parties, including his lawyer. While the crime of which he is accused amounts to not much more than petty digital vandalism, the treatment he suffers at the hands of the state is excessive, disproportionate and draconian. I call on the government to ensure his rights – including to legal representation – are respected so as to ensure a fair trial. A conviction resulting from a trail tainted by procedural misconduct is liable to be ruled unsafe and overturned. The interests of justice are not served by such an outcome, and Singapore’s status as a rule of law country risks being undermined.
James Raj was apparently detained without charge for eight days before being presented in court on 12 November, but was for all of this time, and for a further three days, denied access to legal advice. During this time he alleges mistreatment while detained and was subsequently remanded to the Institute of Mental Health on the advice of a deputy public prosecutor, despite apparently having received no formal medical examination. While Raj was on Friday finally allowed access to legal advice – in the form of Singapore’s pre-eminent human rights lawyer, M Ravi – this meeting was reported as lasting only “a few minutes” and as taking place in open court. This level of legal representation is insufficient to allow an accused person to mount an effective defence and increases the chances of any subsequent conviction being deemed unsafe. Raj is not expected to appear in public again until his next court date which is set for November 26, a full two weeks after he was remanded to the IMH.
The disproportionate handling of James Raj’s case appears to be the result of political embarrassment on the part of Singapore’s ruling Peoples Action Party. At least one of the sites he is accused of hacking is linked to the ruling party in the Prime Minister’s own constituency. More significantly, the public response to his actions was unexpectedly positive, reflecting Singaporeans’ growing dissatisfaction with a ruling party that has lost its golden touch with the economy and struggles to retain the authority it enjoyed in years gone by. The state’s draconian treatment of Raj appears to stem at least in part from a desire to re-establish some of that lost authority, as well as a need to deter any would-be copy cats from further stirring up discontent.
Particularly troubling is Raj’s allegation of mistreatment in custody. While Singapore generally scores well on international metrics for law enforcement and policing, politically sensitive cases have for decades been dogged very consistently by allegations of mistreatment of detainees. Is James Raj seen as a political detainee, and thus being (mis)treated accordingly?