SINGAPORE - While the death of a woman who was badly tortured has angered many Singaporeans including himself, the public should avoid putting pressure on judges to impose harsh or lenient sentences, said Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday (Dec 20) morning, Mr Shanmugam said he was "troubled" by the way some people had reacted to the case of Ms Annie Ee, a 26-year-old waitress with intellectual disabilities who died after daily beatings by her flatmates.
She suffered 12 fractured ribs and seven fractured vertebrae and a ruptured stomach, among other injuries.
"I can understand the anger that many feel. At the same time, I am troubled by how some people have expressed their views," he wrote.
He noted that an online petition seeking harsher sentences was filed and "aspersions were cast on the defence lawyers’ characters".
Such comments prompted statements from both the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) and Law Society, who took issue with the tenor and substance of the online criticisms, he added.
"As a society, we have to try and avoid putting public pressure on judges to impose harsh/lenient sentences. We have a well-functioning court system. We must have the confidence that our judges will do the right thing," he said.
He added: "The sentence that a defendant gets, in any particular case, must not depend on how the public react during the case."
On Dec 1, Tan Hui Zhen, 33, was sentenced to 16½ years' jail, and her husband Pua Hak Chuan, 38, was given 14 years' jail and 14 strokes of the cane.
They had pleaded guilty to various charges for the extensive torture of Ms Annie Ee, a 26-year-old waitress who had intellectual disabilities, over eight months.
The daily beatings left Ms Ee with 12 fractured ribs and seven fractured vertebrae, a ruptured stomach and a body crowded with blisters and bruises. They were initially charged with murder.
Evidence given by the forensic pathologist showed that Ms Ee's death was caused by acute fat embolism.
Ms Ee had been beaten so severely that fatty tissue below the skin had separated from the muscle and entered her bloodstream, interfering with blood getting oxygen in the lungs and leading to progressive cardiac and respiratory failure.
A spokesman for the AGC said on Monday that the offences of murder and culpable homicide cannot be proved against the couple as they "did not intend to cause Annie's death, and the injuries they inflicted would not ordinarily cause death".
Mr Shanmugam noted in his Facebook post that the prosecution or defence can appeal if the sentence does not appear right.
He also responded to criticism of the couple's defence lawyer, Mr Josephus Tan from Invictus Law Corporation. "Every defendant has a right to get a lawyer to defend him," he noted.
"A lawyer has the duty to put forward the strongest possible arguments, on behalf of his client, in court. It will be a sad day for Singapore, if lawyers are going to be hounded in public, for standing up in court to argue on behalf of their clients," he said.
Likewise, the Law Society, in a letter published in The Straits Times on Tuesday, noted that every accused deserves due process, even during sentencing after they have pleaded guilty, calling it a "bedrock of our Singapore criminal justice system".
Mr Shanmugam also appealed to the public to remember that "someone known to anyone of us could be charged for any offence at any point in time".
"Rule of Law means that the person is entitled to have his lawyer put forward the strongest possible arguments in his favour. And he is entitled to have a Judge decide his guilt/ innocence and sentence, without the public, or anyone else influencing the outcome," he said.
He concluded: "We ought to be a civilised society, observing the Rule of Law, while expressing our unhappiness and moral outrage when seeing such conduct as in this case."
Here is Mr Shanmugam's post in full: