On this date in 2003, 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison as a drug courier, along with his supposed collaborator Moorthy Angappan.
Mourthi vigorously maintained his innocence, and his family has done likewise in the years since, helping turn the young factory worker into a wrongful-execution poster child.
It was a Sgt. Rajkumar who arrested Mourthi by posing as a buyer of his cargo. Rajkumar would later present an undated, unsigned “confession” purporting to show that Mourthi was completely aware that it was heroin he was moving. At first read one might might indeed doubt Mourthi’s insistence that he thought he was carrying “incense stones” … but his compatriot Angappan was indeed an incense dealer and a family friend known to Mourthi as such.
British journalist Alan Shadrake‘s 2010 indictment of Singaporean justice Once a Jolly Hangman (banned in its titular city-state) calls Mourthi’s hanging “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.
Rajkumar’s testimony about Mourthi’s confession was instrumental in hanging the young man, but just a couple of days after he arrested Mourthi, Rajkumar himself was arrested (and then released on bail) on a rape accusation. According to the recent book Once a Jolly Hangman, whose denunciations of Singapore’s death penalty system earned its author a prison term in the repressive city-state,
Intense efforts were … made by Rajkumar’s many friends in the CNB and a police friend at Clementi Police Station to persuade ‘J’ to withdraw her statement. The bribes involved large sums of money, which she refused … There were frantic, secret meetings between Rajkumar, his police officer friends and his accuser in shopping malls and fast-food outlets during which he, his family and friends continued to offer large sums of money in exchange for withdrawing her allegations. All this intrigue was going on while Rajkumar was busy getting enough evidence together to ensure Mourthi would be found guilty and hanged.
So. That’s less than ideal.
Sadly for the accused, none of this credibility-melting information was ever known during Mourthi’s trial and appeal. After Mourthi’s execution, the bad cop who hanged him went on trial for corruption over his witness-tampering, and eventually served 15 months.
On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”
A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.
This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.
The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*
On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)
Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.
Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.
And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.
In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.
* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.
On this date in 1995, Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore.
Contemplacion had, four years before, strangled a fellow-maid and drowned that maid’s four-year-old charge.
That’s what she confessed to, at least. Even though Contemplacion’s camp would eventually argue that the confession had been coerced, or that she’d been possessed by a strange epileptic, Contemplacion herself never really walked back that admission.
Still, Flor Contemplacion the cause celebre and Flor Contemplacion the cultural phenomenon was never only about the woman’s innocence, even if many do still believe she was framed.
By whatever happenstance of timing and circumstance, widespread publicity of her case in the Philippines during the months leading up to her hanging tapped a national discontent among her countrymen and -women about “OFWs” — overseas Filipino workers.
This economic sector — exported labor — had been intentionally nurtured (pdf) by Manila beginning with a 1974 labor code, and over the ensuing generation ballooned twentyfold into a positively enormous phenomenon.* By the time Flor Contemplacion hanged, everybody in the Philippines knew people who had worked overseas, and whose wage remittances were indispensable (pdf) for supporting their families in the Philippines. (And increasingly, the entire national economy.)
Boom of the overseas Filipino workers sector, 1975 – 2000 (1975 = 1). Source of figures; there are more official OFW stats here.
Ascendance of the OFW industry brought with it the discontents attendant with scattering wholesale quantities of the populace to unfamiliar corners of the globe, many of them to confront the timeless varieties of workplace abuse from positions of special vulnerability: “The dark reality,” one organization says this year, of “low wages, horrid working conditions, little protection for human rights, exploitation, harassment, threats, illegal arrests, imprisonment, criminalization, and deportation.”
To say nothing of the political discontents raised by such a discomfiting abdication of autarky, and the “domestic anxieties” (pdf) of developing “the embarrassing reputation that we are a country of DHs [domestic helpers], entertainers, and even prostitutes.” This is, truly, a rich and complex tapestry.
Flor Contemplacion is practically the patron saint of the indicted Filipino/a abroad, and her fruitless clemency appeal the political breakout of OFWs and their allies as a constituency to reckon with.
The effect was immediate. Contemplacion hadn’t had any great level of consular support early in her criminal process — the time when it might have made the most difference. (The Philippines embassy in Singapore later took considerable heat for this fact.)
But as the story made headlines and some sketchy witnesses accused the victim’s widower husband of being the real perpetrator, the case became a national sensation. Recently-elected president Fidel Ramos, who campaigned on restoring the previously-abolished death penalty in the Philippines, not only had to put on the full-court press for this condemned woman but incongruously declared her a “national hero”; his wife personally received Contemplacion’s remains at the airport. Leaders and ordinary people from Catholics to Communists rallied (sometimes rioted) in anger.
(Singapore was just at this time establishing its own reputation as the place that never gives diplomatically expedient clemencies. Never.)
Whatever the domestic controversies, the labor-export business has only continued to grow in the generation since Contemplacion’s hanging. To this day, the Filipino public has shown great sympathy with OFWs entangled in alien criminal justice systems, and demanded diplomatic support — regardless of particular individuals’ putative guilt.
Regrettably, it is often called to do so: from Saudi Arabia to China, the plight of Filipinos executed abroad remains a recurrent and emotionally charged theme in the country.
Flor Contemplacion’s name, well-known still anywhere in the archipelago, was back in the news last year … when her three sons all drew lifetime prison sentences for drug-smuggling.
On this date in 1988, a trio that had once formed an abusive family were all hanged in Singapore for their shocking ritual murders.
Top to bottom: Lim, Tan Mui Choo, and Hoe Kah Hong.
The Toa Payoh murders stunned Singapore in early 1981, when the brutalized bodies of a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy turned up in that district of the city-state.
A literal trail of blood led police from the second victim to a nearby seventh-floor flat cohabitated by a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Adrian Lim and his “holy wives” Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong. In the apartment was a bevy skin-crawling incriminating evidence, like papers with the victims’ names written down, hairs later matched to the kids, and spatters of blood.
So this wasn’t a case so much for crime scene investigators as for psychologists.
Eschewing the forgettable life of a mere cable TV bill collector, a thirtysomething Adrian Lim had cultivated a side business in quack spiritualism in the early Seventies. He soon found this rewarding scam, in which troubled bar hostesses seeking personal guidance could be induced to pay him for a holistic regimen of eggs, needles, prayer to miscellaneous deities, and (often as not) sex with their “healer”, sufficient to support his lifestyle without further remuneration from the broadcast industry, so he went full time. And then he went right around the bend.
Even as a 9-to-5 desk jockey, Lim had already reeled in one depressed young woman as his live-in lover and business partner and willing enabler of Lim’s carnal con artistry. Lim did not scruple to pimp her out as a prostitute. This was Tan Mui Choo.
Hoe Kah Hong fell into Lim’s clutches a few years later, and although it was that young woman’s own mother who brought her in for Lim’s hocus-pocus, the charismatic witch doctor soon turned her against her family and moved her into the place, too. He eliminated Hoe’s husband by conning him into an electroshock treatment that Lim used to shock him dead.
This twisted family’s run of good luck and absurdly gullible customers came to an end late in 1980, when a cosmetics salesgirl whom Lim had drugged and raped (sometimes the spirits need a chemical assist with these things) started blackmailing him — and shopped him when he didn’t pay enough.
Under a pending sex-assault investigation, Lim conceived some bizarre plan to draw police attention away (or induce the goddess Kali to help him out of the pickle) by … murdering children. Makes sense, right?
It made enough sense to his holy wives to get them to help drug little Agnes Ng Siew Hock on January 24, 1981, help Adrian Lim rape her, help smother her with pillows, and help smear her blood on the apartment’s little sacrificial shrine. Two weeks later, they did much the same (less the rape) to Ghazali bin Marzuki. They were taken into custody the very next day.
While there’s little doubt about whether, the little matter of why was the topic on all Singapore’s lips.
In an eight-week trial that kept the public riveted with the ghastly and/or ludicrous particulars of the medium’s operation, dueling psychiatrists went front and center and measured out competing takes on the prisoners’ respective culpability. In he end, the draught was half-full for all three.
The trial’s “gruesome accounts of sexual perversion, the drinking of human blood, spirit possession, exorcism and indiscriminate cruelty” (Singapore Straits Times) made Lim a Bundy-esque object of public hatred; even others condemned to death refused to associate with him. He was the subject of the first feature-length domestic Singaporean film in English, 1992′s The Medium.
While awaiting that fate, Shanmugam befriended the young Australian drug mule and “simple soul” Van Tuong Nguyen, who was bound to follow in his footsteps; Shanmugam’s last appeal to his lawyer was “to save Nguyen Tuong Van’s life at all costs.”
Turns out Scripps, recently absconded from British custody after his latest in a series of drug and theft arrests,* had used the same chop-shop m.o. on a Canadian mother and son in Thailand and, as with Lowe, leached their electronic assets thereafter.
(Ever the jet-setter, Scripps was also a suspect in three other murders — of two Brits in Central America and of an American male prostitute in San Francisco.)
“John disappeared on several trips and went to the United States and South-East Asia,” his Mexican ex-wife said later. “I knew something awful was happening, but I could not believe he had started killing people.”
After conviction, Scripps declined to appeal or petition for clemency, saying he wanted the law to take its course quickly. He was hanged alongside two drug traffickers.
* He’d learned butchery in prison — so well that he’d talked about opening a shop when he got out. Which is sort of what he did.
Van Damme, 59 at his death, claimed ignorance of the illicit contents and his case drew appeals from the Dutch government — to no avail.
The city-state’s severe criminal code and comprehensively ordered society — “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in cyberpunk author William Gibson’s formulation — is somewhat notorious at this point.
But while foreign migrants and guest workers had regularly faced the gallows for similar offenses, van Damme’s hanging marked a significant ramping-up of enforcement. According to Amnesty International, Singapore carried out 54 drug-related hangings in 1994 and another 52 in 1995, after an early-90′s pace of under ten per year. It’s maintained rates in the dozens of executions per annum since then, making it the heaviest per-capita user of the death penalty in the world.
An intensified pace perhaps came with a new resolve on the part of the former British colony to forswear juridical perks to European offenders — at least to some extent. Van Damme’s fate makes an interesting contrast with that of his countrywoman, Maria Krol-Hmelak (the link is to her scanty Dutch Wikipedia page). Krol-Hmelak had been arrested a few months before van Damme also for possessing enough heroin to be presumed a smuggler and incur an automatic death sentence; at her trial a few months after van Damme’s, she received a surprise acquittal.
On this date in 1942, with the British about to abandon Singapore to the Japanese, turncoat officer Patrick Stanley Vaughan Heenan was summarily executed at Keppel Harbour.
Heenan, who had taken a long leave in Japan in 1938-39, used a wireless set to feed intelligence aiding the Japanese army’s invasion of Southeast Asia.
Heenan was caught on December 10, but there was little werewithal to handle his case as the defenders’ situation deteriorated desperately — less for anything Heenan had on offer than for the comprehensive weakness of the British position. He never seems to have been judicially sentenced, but he was shot by a guard chosen by lot two days before Britain surrendered Singapore. Something of an outsider to begin with, Heenan had begun taunting his guards on their impending defeat.
On this day one year ago, a promising young Nigerian soccer player was taken from his cell in Singapore’s Changi Prison. It was dawn on a Friday morning, execution time in a country that has come to be known for its uncompromising use of the death penalty.
Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, 21, and his co-accused Okele Nelson Malachy, 35, were hanged one after the other in the prison’s death chamber. Tochi’s lawyers had been informed he would die that morning, but it had not been announced that Malachy would also hang.
Later that day the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Singapore’s “primary drug enforcement agency”, issued a 138 word statement. With the terse formality that is common to statements by Singapore’s criminal justice authorities, it noted:
The appeals of both Tochi and Malachy to the Court of Appeal and to the President for clemency have been turned down. Their sentences were carried out this morning at Changi Prison.
Tochi was arrested at Changi Airport on 28 November 2004, in possession of 100 capsules of diamorphine, or 727.02g of high grade heroin, which the CNB claimed was worth “about $1.5 million”. He said in a later interview [.doc] that he had arrived in the country expecting to be met by an African man named Mr Marshall. He did not have enough money to clear immigration, and an airport hotel called the police when he attempted to take a room. Malachy was identified as his contact after flying in from Indonesia, although he strenuously denied any connection with the drugs.
Tochi claimed he was carrying the package for a man named Mr Smith, who had befriended him at Sunday services at St Andrew’s Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. He had become stranded in Pakistan while attempting to travel to Dubai, where he hoped to play soccer professionally. As a boy, he represented Nigeria in soccer tournaments, travelling to Senegal when he was 14 to play in a West African youth Championship.
According to Tochi, Mr Smith asked him to take a package of herbs to a sick friend in Singapore, saying he could then apply to play for Singapore soccer clubs. He agreed, and was given a ticket and $200 in cash.
Many sites on the web have quoted the trial judge’s acknowledgement that there was no proof that Tochi knew he was carrying heroin:
There was no direct evidence that he knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that Smith had told him they contained diamorphine, or that he had found that out on his own.
The trial judge was clearly doubtful of Tochi’s knowledge. Nevertheless, he found the defendant had “wilfully turned a blind eye on the contents of the capsules because he was tempted” by what police claimed was an offer of US$2000 in payment.
But the prosecution didn’t have to prove Tochi knew; it was up to him to prove that he didn’t know what was in the capsules. If he couldn’t prove his ignorance of that fact — a challenging philosophical notion in itself — then the law would presume he knew, and therefore convict him of drug trafficking. Under section 18(2) of Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act:
Any person who is proved or presumed to have had a controlled drug in his possession shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to have known the nature of that drug.
The Misuse of Drugs Act reverses many principles that are taken as central to a fair trial, including the burden of proof and the idea that a court should consider the facts of the case before deciding a penalty.
shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. This conflicts with the universally guaranteed right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Amnesty International is gravely concerned that such presumptions erode the right to a fair trial, increasing the risk that an innocent person may be executed…
The Act applies a mandatory death penalty for a wide range of drug offences, including for importing more than 15 grams of diamorphine or pure heroin.
Possession of relatively small amounts of drugs — by the standards of many countries — is classed as “trafficking” in that drug. Trafficking in that drug carries a mandatory death penalty. Courts have no power to consider the individual circumstances of the case.
Famously described as “Disneyland with the death penalty” by novelist William Gibson, Singapore brings together a record of social order and strict political control, and an unwavering use of the death penalty, particularly for drug-related offences. (Such as a similar recent case profiled here -ed.)
No surprises then that Tochi was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death in December 2005. His appeal was rejected in March 2006, with the judge pausing only to note that the accused had to prove he didn’t know what was in the bag:
Under s 18(2) of the Act, the first appellant was presumed to know the nature of the drugs in his possession. The burden thus shifted to him to persuade the court on a balance of probabilities that he did not know that he was carrying drugs or that what he was carrying were drugs.
The appeal court judge acknowledged Tochi’s claim that he didn’t know, but agreed that he hadn’t proven his ignorance.
Seven months before Tochi’s execution, his brother Uzonna told a reporter from IPS News he had not told their parents that their son, who once supported the family, was now on death row.
“My poor parents will die if they hear that a child who has worked so hard to sustain them is facing a death sentence,” he said.
Tochi was hanged in the face of widespread international protest: legal efforts and a presidential appeal in Nigeria, urgent global appeals from Amnesty International activists, intervention from a United Nations human rights expert, and discreet but unequivocal opposition from a small group of human rights activists within Singapore itself.
Reflecting the colonial origins of the country’s modern death penalty, Tochi was “hanged by the neck till he [was] dead”, in the words of Singapore’s Criminal Procedure Code. The same British legal phrase was taken with the empire to, among other countries, the United States, India, Pakistan, Brunei and Malaysia.
On this date in 2005, Australian national Van Tuong Nguyen was hanged* in Singapore’s Changi Prison for smuggling heroin.
Three years before, in dire financial straits, Nguyen had agreed to act as a drug courier and been caught attempting to carry 396.2 grams — less than a pound — of heroin through the airport of the notoriously execution-happy city-state. He had no criminal history and cooperated with the authorities, but the quantity of contraband on his person incurred an automatic death sentence.
Nguyen became an international cause celebre and the Australian government appealed for clemency — though some detected tepid public notice for the young man of Vietnamese extraction in comparison with white Australians in similar situations.
His family’s two-year campaign mobilizing worldwide pressure to save him was the profile of a 2006 documentary that laid bare the continuing grief left to Nguyen’s family and friends … and their continuing work against the death penalty in his remembrance. This personal tribute of unidentified provenance captures both:
* By Darshan Singh, whose identity as Singapore’s hangman was exposed on the occasion.