Criminal defamation case

Court dismisses bid to mount constitutional challenge

(From left) Daniel De Costa, lawyer M. Ravi and editor of TOC Terry Xu outside the State Courts yesterday. District Judge Christopher Tan, after hearing the case yesterday, said there was no novel question of law in the case that warranted a referral
(From left) Daniel De Costa, lawyer M. Ravi and editor of TOC Terry Xu outside the State Courts yesterday. District Judge Christopher Tan, after hearing the case yesterday, said there was no novel question of law in the case that warranted a referral to the High Court.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

A bid by lawyer M. Ravi to mount a constitutional challenge in the High Court on the basis that charges against his client infringed the right to equal treatment was dismissed yesterday.

District Judge Christopher Tan, after hearing the case yesterday, agreed with the prosecutors that the question at hand had been dealt with in prior cases and there was thus no novel question of law in the case that warranted a referral to the High Court.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, a Senior Counsel, had argued that Mr Ravi's application had no merit and was both frivolous and vexatious, like an earlier application that was made. He said the principles relating to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion were settled and uncontroversial.

Daniel De Costa, 36, was charged in court last year over an article published on socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), and Mr Ravi argued that the charge faced by his client contravenes his constitutional right to equality before the law because others who made similar claims were not charged.

Mr Ravi had pointed out that at the material time his client had made the statements deemed to have defamed members of the Cabinet, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's siblings - Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang - had made "similar or worse imputations" directed at PM Lee, a member of the Cabinet.

He thus argued that the prosecution of De Costa, but not the Lee siblings, is an infringement of the right to equality laid out in Article 12 of the Constitution. The editor of TOC Terry Xu faces a similar charge in a separate case.

DPP Faizal pointed to the 2012 Court of Appeal case of Ramalingam that he said conclusively resolved the question.

In the Ramalingam case, the Attorney-General decided to charge him with capital offences while charging a person complicit in the same criminal enterprise, Sundar Arujunan, with non-capital offences. Ramalingam argued the equality before the law issue but the top court held that he had to show a prima facie case of breach of the constitutional principle.

Mr Faizal said yesterday that the apex court's decision in that case required the applicant (De Costa) to show prima facie proof that the Attorney-General acted unconstitutionally.

"De Costa has not only failed to discharge such burden, but he has not even offered any evidence supporting his contention of unconstitutionality," said SC Faizal.

In his decision, District Judge Tan noted that the defence attempted to frame the issue in the application as a new question of law by justifying that its facts had not been encountered before by the courts.

"As has been held in previous cases, it is not sufficient to merely set out a new factual situation because new factual permutations would always arise," he said, dismissing the application.

Mr Ravi informed the court he will file a criminal motion on the case to the High Court next week in another bid to have the case heard by the High Court.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2020, with the headline 'Court dismisses bid to mount constitutional challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe