The first man to claim trial among 25 foreign workers facing charges for their role in the riot in Little India on Dec 8 last year was in court yesterday for the start of his hearing.
Construction worker Mahalingam Thavamani, a 27-year-old Indian national, was initially accused of rioting, but now faces an amended charge of obstructing a police officer that night.
Under Section 152 of the Penal Code, anyone who obstructs a public servant in the course of his work dispersing an unlawful assembly or suppressing a riot could be dealt a jail term of up to eight years and/or a fine.
His original charge of rioting carried a maximum sentence of seven years and caning.
Thavamani allegedly obstructed Deputy Superintendent of Police Subramaniam N. when he defied orders to leave an area near Belilios Road where Special Operations Command troopers "were trying to flush the remnant rioters out", said investigating officer Lee Tian Huat on the stand yesterday.
Inspector Lee, of the Criminal Investigation Department, is overseeing the cases and was the first of two witnesses called by the prosecution yesterday.
His cross-examination by defence counsel B.J. Lean became heated when he was unable to provide some details - such as where Thavamani was arrested exactly, and how precisely the worker had obstructed the officer. He said such information would be best asked of Thavamani's arresting officers, who are expected to take the stand today.
Mr Lean told the court the allegations made against Thavamani were false. "There was no obstruction created by my client," he said.
Instead, Thavamani had been taken to a "holding area" in Race Course Road with the other accused men after being arrested in Belilios Road. The police had "made a mistake charging him with rioting", argued the lawyer.
He asked if Insp Lee had "any evidence that the accused man had used any force or any behaviour that prevented the officer from discharging his duty", to which the latter replied, "No".
The trial was adjourned not long after DSP Subramaniam took the stand late in the afternoon.
The prosecution, led by Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohulabala, has lined up another half dozen witnesses, including Assistant Superintendent of Police Jonathan Tang, who was one of the first officers at the scene; the two officers who arrested Thavamani, one of whom is DSP Subramaniam; and an unnamed "intelligence officer".
The accused is the sole witness to be called upon by the defence.
Six other Indian nationals have pleaded guilty to failing to disperse and were sentenced to between 15 and 18 weeks' jail each. The remaining 18 have their cases pending in court.