Penal Code review committee: Harsher punishments proposed for abuse of children, vulnerable adults

The couple who tortured Annie Ee Yu Lian (above) for eight months, until her death, was convicted of causing grievous hurt with a weapon. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/ANNIE EE YU LIAN
A committee reviewing the Penal Code has proposed a new offence of causing death by sustained abuse of a vulnerable victim - to adequately reflect the culpability of such assailants. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Those who physically abuse vulnerable victims over a period of time, eventually leading to the death of the victim, could face harsher punishment under a proposed new offence that carries up to 20 years' jail and a fine or caning or both.

A committee tasked with reviewing the Penal Code has proposed creating a new offence - of causing death by sustained abuse of a vulnerable victim - to adequately reflect the culpability of such assailants.

A recent spate of cases of vulnerable victims who died after suffering repeated abuse has not been prosecuted under provisions that adequately reflect the heinous nature of the crime, it said.

At least five cases were heard in court between 2016 and last year, an increase from seven cases prosecuted from 2000 to 2011.

Currently, in cases where the abuse consists of a series of acts that eventually leads to death, the abuser is likely to be prosecuted under causing grievous hurt, which carries up to 10 years' jail, with a possible fine and caning.

This is because there is often insufficient evidence to prove that the abuser had the intention to cause death or fatal injury.

This was "unsatisfactory", said the committee. A person who abuses a child or vulnerable adult over a period of time, eventually leading to the victim's death, is arguably as culpable as a person who kills another in a one-off incident, it said.

In 2016, the mother of two-year-old Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser, who died after five weeks of abuse, was sentenced to 11 years' jail. Her boyfriend was sentenced to 10 years' jail and 12 strokes of the cane. They were convicted of causing grievous hurt.

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Last year, a couple who tortured 26-year-old waitress Annie Ee Yu Lian for eight months until she died was convicted of causing grievous hurt with a weapon. The wife was sentenced to 16½ years' jail and the husband to 14 years' jail and 14 strokes of the cane.

Pointing to public outrage over these two cases, the committee said society reserves "special disapprobation" for the abuse of vulnerable people by their caregivers or others in a position of trust.

Another new offence - of causing or allowing death or serious injury of a child or vulnerable person - was also proposed to cover the scenario in which two or more caregivers had the opportunity to cause death, but it is impossible to pinpoint who was responsible.

This provision, which would apply to the person who committed the unlawful act as well as to someone who stood by and did nothing to stop it, is punishable with up to 20 years' jail, and possible fine and caning.

Moves to prevent abuse were also mooted.

This includes adding a provision in the Children and Young Persons Act requiring a caregiver to take reasonable steps to prevent future abuse. Current laws do not compel intervention.

Apart from the new offences, the maximum penalties for all offences committed against children below the age of 14, vulnerable adults, and domestic maids may also be enhanced by up to two times.

Currently, the law provides for enhanced penalties of up to 1½ times the maximum prescribed by law for specific offences, such as causing hurt, committed against a maid by her employers.

The committee proposed that the same protection be extended for crimes against children below 14 and vulnerable persons, defined as a person who is unable to protect himself due to mental or physical disability.

Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, of Quahe Woo & Palmer, said he sympathised with the thinking behind this. But he pointed out that many offenders do not pause to think about facing potentially heavier sentences.

"On the ground, we see people behave differently. Spur-of-the-moment offenders will not change because of this," he said.

He also cautioned that this may prompt some people, who happen to fall into the category of vulnerable victims, to lodge false reports to get someone into trouble.

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