Jailed man should have been allowed to retract guilty plea

Judge sets aside conviction and sentencing for Bangladeshi over a work-injury claim

A Bangladeshi construction worker who served a four-week jail term for making a false work-injury claim had both the conviction and sentence quashed on appeal to the High Court.

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, in ordering they be set aside, ruled that Md Rafiqul Islam Abdul Aziz should have been allowed to retract his guilty plea before a district judge in June and have the case decided through a trial.

The move is rare as the judge noted in grounds issued last week that the High Court's powers to revise decisions were to be exercised sparingly and would be used only "to remedy a serious injustice".

Rafiqul, 29, had pleaded guilty to the charge in relation to a work injury he had claimed under the Work Injury Compensation Act for a date on which it did not happen.

He may have given the wrong date inadvertently and, being a foreigner unfamiliar with the legal system, thought he was pleading guilty to this to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), said the judge.

On the day after his guilty plea, when mitigation and sentencing were due, Rafiqul sought through lawyer Priscylia Wu to retract the guilty plea, saying the accident had occurred a few days earlier than the date stated in the charge.

The move is rare as Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin noted in grounds issued last week that the High Court's powers to revise decisions were to be exercised sparingly and would be used only "to remedy a serious injustice".

MOM prosecuting officer Pegan Chong countered that the retraction was an afterthought.

The district judge, after further queries and hearing all parties, including the court interpreter, found there were no valid grounds to retract and sentenced him.

Rafiqul, who had worked here since 2008, served his jail term and was repatriated on July 22.

He was assisted by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (Home) and his appeal was pursued pro bono by Dentons Rodyk & Davidson lawyer Tang Jin Sheng, who argued that the circumstances surrounding the guilty plea cast serious doubt on it.

The appeal judge clarified that safeguards were provided under the law and ruled that when a guilty plea is modified during mitigation that materially impacts the offence charged, "the court is mandated by law to reject the guilty plea and allow the accused to claim trial".

The judge noted Rafiqul had sought treatment at a hospital on May 31, 2013 for an injury to his knee that occurred four days earlier, as recorded in a doctor's notes.

He added that the statement of facts and charge did not clearly say "no work accident" occurred and ruled such questions should have gone on to be probed at a trial to determine if Rafiqul was guilty or not.

The setting aside of the conviction means the charges, including two related items that were taken into consideration for sentencing purposes, are still live.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said yesterday MOM and AGC will be reviewing whether the charges will be dropped.

Home volunteer Desiree Leong, who handled Rafiqul's case, said: "We will monitor the case and hope he will get a fair compensation for the work injury suffered."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Jailed man should have been allowed to retract guilty plea'. Print Edition | Subscribe