Nigerian acquitted of drug trafficking after 9-year legal see-saw

Apex court reverses 2015 conviction after new evidence on his mental health comes to light

Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi was acquitted of a capital drug trafficking charge after the Court of Appeal reversed its decision, on Sept 17, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

In a verdict that brings to a close a rare legal case that has seen twists and turns in the past nine years, a 34-year-old Nigerian man was acquitted of a capital drug trafficking charge after the Court of Appeal reversed its 2015 decision to convict him.

Following a 4-1 split decision, a five-judge panel ruled yesterday that the past judgment can no longer stand after new evidence surfaced that Mr Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi was suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) when he lied to narcotics officers in 2011.

The majority - comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, and Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin - concluded that the 2015 decision was "demonstrably wrong".

Mr Ilechukwu arrived in Singapore from Nigeria on Nov 13, 2011, bringing along a black suitcase.

He passed it to Singaporean Hamidah Awang, who was then arrested at Woodlands Checkpoint after nearly 2kg of methamphetamine was found inside.

Mr Ilechukwu was arrested in his hotel room the next morning.

He was originally acquitted by the High Court in 2014 after the judge accepted his testimony that he did not know the suitcase contained drugs.

The prosecution appealed to a three-judge Court of Appeal, which overturned the acquittal and convicted him.

What tipped the scales at the time were the many lies told by Mr Ilechukwu in his statements, which the apex court concluded could only be explained by "his realisation of his guilt".

In 2017, lawyers for the Nigerian succeeded in getting the apex court to reopen the case.

  • The twists and turns

  • Nov 13, 2011: Mr Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi arrives in Singapore from Nigeria with a black suitcase, which he passes to another person.

    Nov 14, 2011: The Nigerian is arrested at his hotel after nearly 2kg of methamphetamine is found in the suitcase.

    Nov 5, 2014: Mr Ilechukwu is acquitted of drug trafficking after a High Court trial.

    June 29, 2015: He is convicted by the Court of Appeal, which overturns the acquittal following an appeal by the prosecution.

    March 6, 2017: A psychiatric report prepared for the sentencing states that Mr Ilechukwu was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when his statements were recorded.

    April 5, 2017: Mr Ilechukwu files a motion to the Court of Appeal to reopen his case.

    Aug 2, 2017: The Court of Appeal sends the case back to the High Court to make findings on the effects of PTSD and whether Mr Ilechukwu was suffering from it.

    July 5, 2019: The High Court finds that Mr Ilechukwu was suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms when his statements were recorded.

    Mr Ilechukwu is cleared after the Court of Appeal reverses his conviction.

This was after an Institute of Mental Health (IMH) report, prepared by the prosecution for sentencing, stated that Mr Ilechukwu suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing a massacre when he was five years old.

The case was sent back to the High Court for a hearing in which three psychiatrists for the defence and one for the prosecution gave their expert opinions on PTSD.

In its judgment yesterday, the majority said there is now a plausible innocent explanation for the lies.

The apex court accepted that Mr Ilechukwu's history of PTSD and his PTSS in 2011 "may have led him to grossly overestimate the threat on his life" and that "this may in turn have prompted the applicant to utter the unsophisticated and blatant falsehoods in his statements in an attempt to escape from the death penalty and to save his life".

If this evidence had been before the apex court in 2015, "the outcome would have been different", said the majority.

In his dissenting judgment, Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang said he did not think that the new evidence revealed any error in the previous decision to convict the Nigerian.

"I sympathise with the applicant for his past suffering in respect of whatever horrors he had witnessed in his homeland, especially as a young boy.

"However, in the final analysis of all the evidence here, the applicant's defence was truly a highly unlikely account from a totally unreliable and untruthful source," he said.

Mr Ilechukwu's legal team - Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mr Suang Wijaya, Mr Johannes Hadi and Ms Jerrie Tan - said in a statement: "It has been a long and hard-fought pro bono case, involving specialist psychiatric evidence and issues of cross-cultural sensitivities.

"Had it not been for the fortuitous production of the IMH report, our client would have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment."

It is understood that the Nigerian embassy is arranging for Mr Ilechukwu, who has been in custody since his arrest, to depart for Lagos on the next available flight.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2020, with the headline Nigerian acquitted of drug trafficking after 9-year legal see-saw. Subscribe