Crimes like rape need 'strict approach'

Justice system must support victims, says law minister, citing high-profile rape case in US

Singapore needs to take a strict approach when it comes to serious crimes like rape, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Writing on his Facebook page about a controversial sexual assault case in the United States, Mr Shanmugam said an effective criminal justice system in such cases must achieve three things.

It must not make it difficult for women to report the crimes and it must not put women through an unnecessary ordeal during investigations while interrogations in court have to be sensitive to the state of the victims, he said.

Thirdly, the punishment has to be in keeping with the gravity of the crime when guilt is proven, he added.

Mr Shanmugam was commenting on the case of ex-Stanford University student Brock Turner, 20, who was sentenced on June 2 to six months' jail for sexually assaulting an intoxicated and unconscious victim behind a dumpster after a campus party in January last year.

The sentence has sparked widespread outrage in the US among many who felt it was too lenient, and prompted calls and online petitions to remove the judge. It has also put the spotlight on rape at US college campuses.

Mr Shanmugam said the sentence of six months in a county jail and probation "borders on the absurd", given that the potential maximum punishment Turner faced was 14 years in a state prison.

County jails in the US are typically meant for detention during a trial and for people convicted of misdemeanours like shoplifting. State prisons are for convicts of more serious felony offences like robbery.

"Cases like this can diminish confidence in the system as a whole," said Mr Shanmugam.

He also drew attention to the victim's 7,000-word account of her travails, part of which she had read out in court on the day that Turner was sentenced.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "I read the young woman's account of what she had to go through in Court, being subjected to a highly offensive line of questions.

"It suggested a complete lack of remorse by Brock Turner. And his father's statement, that it was only '20 minutes of action' was something else altogether."

Besides a justice system that takes care not to put extra stress on victims of such crimes, Mr Shanmugam said more work needs to be done to make it easier for victims to come forward.

"In Singapore, we need to take a strict approach to these sorts of offences," he added.

"And we need to work at making it easier for people to report and undergo examination when they have been victims of sexual violence."

In Singapore, rape and sexual assault by penetration carry a penalty of up to 20 years' jail and a fine or caning.

On Wednesday, a man who pleaded guilty to raping a 12-year-old schoolgirl was jailed for 16½ years and given 18 strokes of the cane.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Crimes like rape need 'strict approach''. Print Edition | Subscribe