Man's 20 1/2-year drug sentence overturned on appeal

Malaysian bus driver Veeramani Manikam was acquitted after the High Court believed him when he said he knew nothing about the drugs found in the car he was driving.
Malaysian bus driver Veeramani Manikam was acquitted after the High Court believed him when he said he knew nothing about the drugs found in the car he was driving. PHOTO: ST GRAPHICS

Bus driver's 20 1/2-year jail term and caning set aside after judge says his account believable

For the last three years and seven months, Malaysian bus driver Veeramani Manikam has been in remand after being arrested for importing drugs through the Woodlands Checkpoint and sentenced to 20 1/2 years in jail. But he was acquitted on Monday, after the High Court believed him when he said he knew nothing about the drugs found in the car he was driving.

Justice Chan Seng Onn, who heard Mr Manikam's appeal, said his version of events was "candid", "credible" and "predominantly unrebutted". He also questioned why attempts were not made to ascertain Mr Manikam's side of the story.

"It is unfortunate that the investigating officers chose not to check the truth or falsity of the appellant's story," said the judge in judgment grounds released yesterday.

Mr Manikam was arrested in December 2011 after a black bag hidden under the bonnet of the Proton Wira he was driving was found to contain two wrapped bundles of cannabis, as well as the controlled drug Nimetazepam, which is used to treat insomnia. In June 2013, he was found guilty by a district court after a trial in which he had no representation. He was also ordered to be given 20 strokes of the cane.

Mr Manikam, who also worked as a bouncer at a Johor Baru pub, said a customer, known as "Singer" in court documents, asked him to help him return to Singapore. A colleague named Ravi lent him the Proton Wira, on condition Singer did the driving as Mr Manikam had been drinking heavily that night. Mr Manikam was to drive the car back.

Mr Manikam said he fell asleep on the way, and was woken by a Malaysian policeman just before customs clearance. Singer had disappeared, and Mr Manikam was told to drive on or face arrest. As he could not find a U-turn, he drove into Singapore but officers, acting on a tip-off, found the drugs under the car mats in the bonnet .

During the trial, the district judge said he found it "inexplicable" that the accused would continue into Singapore after Singer's disappearance. But Justice Chan said it had not been determined whether a U-turn was available. There was also no attempt made to verify the existence of the pub, the co-worker, Singer or the incident involving the Malaysian officer, and the judge asked for this to be done.

Defence lawyer Jason Chan, from Allen & Gledhill, who was appointed to provide Mr Manikam with pro bono representation two days into the appeal, hired a private investigator, who testified that the only way to make U-turn was to go into Singapore first.

The prosecution submitted evidence during the appeal that showed "Malaysia Customs will not allow anyone to make a U-turn so easily". Justice Chan said a Google search that he did found the address and location of the "Peace Bistro Club and Cafe" in Taman Perling. The private investigator also verified the existence of the pub, as claimed by Mr Manikam.

The judge further noted that a month before his arrest, Mr Manikam said he had rejected a request to illegally smuggle cigarettes into Singapore. The accused said he had reported this to Singapore authorities, and the judge said it was possible the report was not recorded. Mr Manikam believed he might have been framed because of this.

The fact that the drugs were so "readily discoverable merely by opening the bonnet", and that the officers were acting on intelligence, lent some support to Mr Manikam's belief, said Justice Chan. He also thanked Mr Manikam's lawyer for his "detailed and well-researched submissions".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline 'Man's drug sentence overturned on appeal'. Print Edition | Subscribe