Guantanamo in Singapore? Detention without trial as part of its criminal/ legal system.

19 Feb

Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee has told the Singapore Parliament that safeguards are in place to prevent a ‘Guantanamo Bay’ situation from happening in Singapore.

This is  despite the city state retaining the Internal Security Act, Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), Misuse of Drugs Act, and the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA) which effectively deprives those being arrested under these legislation from being charged in an open court.

According to the Singapore press, Straits Times, ‘Criminal Law Act needed to tackle gangs and drugs’, the Minister argued that the act (which is subject to renewal every five years) is still relevant though it was originally enacted to contain secret societies in the 50s. According to him, half of the ’64 detention and six police supervision orders issued under the Act last year’ were related to such cases. He reiterated that the law is only used as a last resort and against ‘pre-emptive gang violence along ethnic lines; detering ‘foreign criminal syndicates’, and ‘drug trafficking and loan-shark activities, particularly in cases where the witnesses or runners are fearful of testifying against the kingpins’.

Statistics- wise, the number of detainees under the act has decreased from ‘1,260 in 1988 to 463 in 1998 to 290 last year’. Moreover, ‘since 1999, the number of detention orders issued yearly has averaged between 60 and 80’.

In comparison, the Internal Security Act (by the end of 2007 – according to US State Department’s 2007 Human Rights Report on Singapore) has arrested 34 people for suspicion of being involved in terrorism. 27 individuals are also subject to Restriction Order (RO) which means they need approval to change their homes, jobs, travel abroad or join any public organization or  take part in any social or political activity. 211 people are believed to be detained under the CLA by the end of that time period. The same report also pointed out that 640 people are believed to be held in drug rehabilitation centres, presumably, under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Judging by what has been documented, it can be safely estimated that at least one thousand people in Singapore are currently detained under these laws without access to a free and fair trial. Do the math – 290 under CLA (as reported by Straits Times. This number is used as it is the latest figure we have); 34 under ISA and 640 under Misuse of Drugs Act(both figures based on US State Department reports as they are the latest available). And this number, for a population of close to 5 million including permanent residents and migrant workers.

This number is in fact greater than the number of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. When the Associate Press filed a Freedom of Information Act on this matter in 2006, the Department of Defense compiled a list of 759 detainees for public scrutiny.

Mr Ho Peng Kee has also argued that the situation of those who have been arrested under CLA cannot be compared to those held in Guantanamo Bay because they are not held in special detention centres.

That is however to miss the point of the debate. It boils down to whether an accused can challenge the basis of his arbitrary detention (also known as habeous corpus) in a fair and open court. Clearly, those arrested under the ISA, CLA and possibly a sizeable portion of those prosecuted under Misuse of Drugs Act have been deprived of this legal right.

To address the above point in another way using simple calculations: if Guantanmo Bay has held close to 800 people out of a worldwide population which the Bush Administration believed are involved in terrorism, then Singapore’s 1000 detainees out of a population of 5 million for mainly anti-social behaviour is way ahead of the former, number-wise. An alarming figure if you think about it.

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