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Renewing ‘last resort’ law that allows detention of criminal suspects without trial

Renewing ‘last resort’ law that allows detention of criminal suspects without trial

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 30 Mar 2024
Author: Zaihan Mohamed Yusof

Act has been used in cases where witnesses refuse to provide evidence for fear of reprisal.

The police had identified the “big boss” of an unlicensed moneylending syndicate, but he was operating from overseas and those who could provide evidence against him were too afraid to testify in open court.

Investigators from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had to act swiftly.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Alvin Li, from CID’s Unlicensed Moneylending Strike Force, said the illegal service had evolved to the point where loans were being offered on social media and mobile phone apps, with the leaders of the syndicates based overseas.

But old-school scare tactics remained, with borrowers who defaulted on loan repayments facing severe harassment.

DSP Li said that when the police identified the top man of the syndicate, they decided they had to rely on the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) to get him.

It is a law that gives the Home Affairs Minister the power to detain someone without trial over alleged links to syndicates and secret societies.

In 2018, the law was amended with a clause that states that the minister’s decision to detain or supervise a person – in the interest of public safety, peace and good order – is final

This and other changes to the law sparked a four hour-long debate in Parliament over the Bill to amend the Act.

The Workers’ Party, which opposed the changes, argued that the “finality clause” limits judicial review as it stops judges from probing into the facts of the case.

Others noted that the clause removes the right for detainees to ask whether the “minister was right” in deciding to associate them with the offences under the Act, and to be detained or subject to police supervision.

Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim also argued that the amendments, which see the CLTPA cover transnational crimes as well, goes against the Act’s intention to target offences that threaten public safety, peace and order within Singapore.

The Government said that to prevent abuse of the CLTPA, safeguards were included in the Act.

The Public Prosecutor’s consent has to be obtained before any detention order (DO) or police supervision order (PSO) is made, with the orders reviewed by an independent advisory committee comprising sitting judges of the Supreme Court, prominent private citizens, including Justices of the Peace, and senior lawyers.

DSP Li said the law is used as a “last resort” against criminals, when it is in the interest of public safety.

“In the case of a ‘tua taukay’ (big boss in Hokkien), who was detained under the CLTPA in 2019, we worked with a foreign law enforcement agency to process his deportation back to Singapore.

“We also worked with the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to put up a case to justify detaining him under the CLTPA,” said DSP Li, who added that the law has been used against several illegal moneylending suspects based overseas.

In 2015, alleged match-fixer Dan Tan was released after a two-year detention under the Act, after a Court of Appeal found that his alleged involvement in global match-fixing did not threaten public safety in Singapore.

He was subsequently rearrested.

More recently, the law was used to detain four members of a gang after a riot in 2022 in Circular Road that involved more than 10 members of rival secret societies.

One person was stabbed in the incident, and four gang members were detained under the CLTPA.

The Act has been used in cases when prosecution was not viable, with witnesses refusing to provide evidence for fear of reprisal.

DSP Ramesh Rajaram, who is with the Secret Societies Branch (SSB) in the CID, said: “How are we going to convince them (witnesses) to come forward?

“That’s one of the big challenges we face when it comes to these investigations.”

DSP Ramesh said that to protect witnesses and keep their identities a secret, investigators apply to have a suspect detained under the Act.

Officers from CID spoke to the media recently, to provide examples of how the Act applies in their line of work.

With CLTPA, suspects may be issued a DO, where they can be detained for up to 12 months. Others may be issued with a PSO, where they are subjected to police supervision for up to three years.

Those issued a PSO will have to observe strict curfew and travel restrictions, among other requirements. Breaking the conditions can result in a jail sentence.

Between Oct 21, 2019, and Dec 31, 2023, the Act was used 123 times, with 86 DOs and 37 PSOs issued during this period.

CLTPA was enacted in 1955 to deal with Singapore’s gang problem and secret societies. The Act was amended nearly five years ago to clearly state the type of offences that fall under the law.

Aside from secret society activities, it covers unlicensed moneylending, drug trafficking, kidnapping and organised crime.

The temporary nature of the CLTPA refers to a clause that requires the Government to seek Parliament’s endorsement every five years.

The law will expire on Oct 20, 2024, and a Bill to extend it for a 15th time was introduced in Parliament on March 7.

Extending detention

Under this law, a DO can be extended, but several factors are considered. They include the nature and gravity of the criminal activity, the detainee’s criminal antecedents, the detainee’s current conduct and rehabilitation progress, and assessment of the detainee’s likelihood of reoffending and threat to society’s safety and security.

MHA said the longest period of detention has been 15 years.

Former detainees can also be rearrested, and detained again under CLTPA.

DSP Ramesh said some detainees reoffend because they return to their gangs.

“Some of these gang members have entrenched mindsets. Some triad members may have taken oaths, so it’s hard for them to pull away from secret societies,” he added.

According to figures released in 2023 by the Singapore Prison Service, the CLTPA detainee population has been on the decline.

There were 80 detainees behind bars in 2022, down from 88 the previous year, and 98 in 2020. More than 96 per cent of the cohort each year were detained for secret society activities.

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Eric Toh said that while the triad situation in Singapore has been stable, police are closely watching street corner gangs, which often count youth as members.

“Members of the gang are very impulsive and prone to violence. Their propensity for violence is very high,” said ASP Toh, who is also an SSB officer.

On enforcement rounds at nightlife outlets frequented by these gangs, he and his team have seized karambit knives – a curved claw-like blade – and knuckledusters, a scheduled weapon.

The punishment for unlawful possession of a scheduled weapon is a jail term of up to five years, with at least six strokes of the cane, for a first conviction.

Gang fight

Triad members in the past referred to CLTPA as “go chap go” (55 in Hokkien), which relates to the section under the law that allows for the detention of suspects.

It is a law that Mr David King Raj, 43, became familiar with after witnessing a fight.

It happened in 2000, when he was 19 and a member of a gang. About 40 rival gang members had ambushed 10 of his friends after a night out in Little India.

Mr King fled when he saw some of the attackers charging with weapons including parangs.

The attack, which took place near a convenience store in Hastings Road, left two of his friends in Tan Tok Seng Hospital’s intensive care unit, where his best friend Deva died a few hours later.

The attack was in retaliation for an earlier punch-up involving members of the same two gangs.

Said Mr King: “I cried (in prison) because I didn’t expect that my life would be destroyed. We all did things on the spur of the moment for some egotistical reason. But you know, eventually when we go in, we regret because it’s too late.” 

In his years spent in a gang, Mr King learnt that many of his gang “brothers” were detained under CLTPA.

Mr King, who received 18 strokes of the cane and spent a total of eight years behind bars for offences like rioting, has turned his life around. Armed with a Master of Business Administration, he now speaks to at-risk youth as a life coach.

“So make it ‘right’, now,” said Mr King, when sharing his life’s lessons with young people. “There’s hope for you, no matter how bleak your past is.”

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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