The headquarters of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA)

This is Rahman’s story. It’s a story of a Bangladeshi shipyard worker who was arrested for an offence, who was unwavering in his insistence on his innocence, and yet, was punished without trial.

In March 2020, police arrived at Rahman’s dormitory and arrested him for “rioting” (footnote 1), allegedly assaulting someone a few days prior. Rahman was dumbfounded, as he had had no memory of taking part in any such assault. What’s more, he was in his dormitory room with his ten roommates when the alleged assault occurred a few blocks away from his dormitory.

Charged on shaky grounds

Rahman came to TWC2 for assistance in early May 2020 after he was released on bail. Upon hearing his story, we immediately helped him obtain a pro-bono lawyer from the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) (footnote 2). By this time, he had already pleaded not guilty and was willing to fight the allegation in court to clear his name. We were hopeful that, before the case went to court, his lawyer could clear up the misunderstanding and convince the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to withdraw the charge due to insufficient evidence, and that it would be a bad dream Rahman would soon wake up from.

The lawyer submitted a representation to the AGC with following three points:

Firstly, insufficient evidence:

(a) Number of participants – To establish unlawful assembly to prove a riot (footnote 3), the prosecution would need to identify at least five participants (footnote 4). However, Rahman’s charge sheet identified only two (Rahman and another Bangladeshi male). The other participants were unidentified and left as “at least 4 other unknown male Bangladeshis”.

(b) Common Intention – Another element for establishing unlawful assembly is a common intention (footnote 5) of the participants. This was mentioned but not elaborated in the charge sheet or at any point by the deputy public prosecutor.

Rahman’s lawyer pointed out that without evidence of at least five participants and a common intention, the riot charge should not stand.

Secondly, there was Rahman’s alibi:

When questioned by the police, Rahman told them that he was sleeping in his dormitory room at the time of the alleged riot (around 10 pm). He explained that his ten roommates returned from work around 7 pm and would have seen him sleeping in their shared room around 10 pm. Rahman was confident and suggested the police talk to his roommates to confirm his alibi. He even provided the phone numbers of four of his roommates to the AGC. However, when TWC2 reached out to the four roommates, three said the police never contacted them about Rahman’s alibi. The fourth roommate did not return our call.

Furthermore, Rahman’s lawyer heard from the co-accused’s lawyer that his client too claimed he had an alibi. The co-accused was in his dormitory (different from Rahman’s) at the time of the alleged incident, and there was even CCTV footage to prove it.

Thirdly, there was his injury:

Rahman had a documented fracture in his right thumb (footnote 6) at the time of the alleged incident for which he was certified for light duty. Even when he was being interrogated by the police, a plastic shield protecting his thumb would have been obvious. Such an injury on his dominant hand made it unlikely that he participated in a violent act described as “punching and kicking” in the charge sheet.

Acquittal

A few weeks later, Rahman was called to the State Courts. He was told that the AGC would be withdrawing the charge against him. It was a Discharge Amounting to an Acquittal, meaning Rahman was exonerated, and he would not face the same allegation in the future. However, our joy was short-lived.

During the court appointment with the prosecution in which Rahman was acquitted, there were four or five men dressed in street clothes lingering in the State Courts waiting room, with another one or two standing in the corridor outside. Rahman recognised some of them as police officers. As Rahman was leaving the court room, one of the officers handed him a piece of paper titled “Stern Warning”.

What is a Stern Warning?

In Singapore, a Stern Warning is sometimes issued to individuals after a police investigation has closed. It is often described as “a slap on the wrist.” The warning says

  • the police made the assessment that the person committed an offence;
  • it will not leave a criminal record; and
  • it does not affect any of the person’s rights, interests or liabilities.

As the plainclothes police officers were speaking with Rahman, our TWC2 volunteer immediately called Rahman’s lawyer (who had attended the conference via Zoom) and told her what was happening. Her advice was that it was up to Rahman to either accept the Stern Warning or reject it and proceed to trial. However, to Rahman’s and our volunteers’ best knowledge, he was never given such an option, nor was he asked to sign any document (for accepting the Stern Warning) (footnote 7). Rahman was eventually escorted out of the State Courts by the officers. Little did we know that it would be the last time we would see him.

Deported

Rahman was taken into the police custody that day, followed by a chain of events which we reconstructed based on the documents he later shared with us. The next day his visa (footnote 8) was cancelled by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) with immediate effect. Then, the ICA issued a removal order. For the subsequent six days, Rahman was detained while deportation arrangements were made. He was sent to his home country eight days after receiving the stern warning.

Although AGC did not provide the reasons for the acquittal, nevertheless, going by the axiom that one is innocent until proven guilty, the plain reading should be that Rahman was innocent. To this day, it is unclear why Rahman received a stern warning. A further question would be whether the stern warning directly or indirectly triggered the ICA’s decision to cancel Rahman’s visa with immediate effect, which in turned triggered his deportation. And what would be the effect on Rahman’s future hopes of returning to Singapore to find work?

It is worth noting that a stern warning was not supposed to affect a person’s rights or interests. However, in practical terms, was that not what happened in this case?

1. Rioting is punishable under Section 147 of the Penal Code.

2. The Law Society of Singapore’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (“CLAS”) provides criminal legal assistance to the poor and needy who are unable to afford a lawyer and are facing charges in a Singapore court for non-death penalty offences under statutes covered by CLAS. <https://www.lawsocprobono.org/Pages/Criminal-Legal-Aid-Scheme.aspx>

3. Penal Code (CHAPTER 224), s 146.

4. ibid, s 141.

5. ibid, s 146.

6. Rahman sustained the injury in December 2019 at work, and he filed a work injury claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) in November 2020.

7. In some cases the accused person is given a choice to reject the stern warning, but by doing so, he might face prosecution.

8. At this point, the visa that Rahman held was an ICA Special Pass.