SINGAPORE - A man convicted of having sex with a minor was spotted taking part in a walk last Saturday (June 4) that featured young girls celebrating fashion from the Harajuku district in Japan.
His presence at the event, which took the participants from Merlion Park to Orchard Road, sparked an online furore.
There was also a fallout involving the event's main organiser and the seven organising committee members before the walk.
The sex offender had taken part in the same event in 2018 and it was known he would turn up on June 4.
The disquiet was partly over comments the main organiser allegedly made defending the sex offender's relationship with his victim, who was then 14.
The 34-year-old offender was convicted last month on three counts of having sex with a minor he met at the 2018 event.
Another four charges were taken into consideration during sentencing.
The man, who was sentenced to 28 months' jail but is currently out on bail, cannot be named due to a gag order to protect the victim's identity.
The main organiser's comments were made in a Facebook chat that he and the seven committee members of the Harajuku Fashion Walk Singapore group belonged to.
The exchange happened after one of the committee members raised concerns following the sex offender's conviction.
A different committee member agreed the group needed to address the matter.
In response, the main organiser and several other members defended the offender, with some saying they should keep quiet about the incident.
The committee member who raised her concerns later left the group and uploaded screenshots of the chat on the group's Facebook page. The group has a following of more than 3,000 users on Facebook.
The Harajuku Fashion Walk Singapore group has been organising fashion walks here since 2014.
The event is open to photographers and anyone who dresses in the fashion of the Harajuku district in Japan.
Participants would gather at a meeting point before walking for some distance, with videos and photos taken along the way.
There are no age restrictions or fees to participate.
The event on June 4 was the group's 37th walk, and its first since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Straits Times reached out to the committee member who quit and she agreed to speak.
Wanting to be known only as Ms N, she said she was disappointed and angry that nothing was done to stop the man from attending the event.
Ms N, who is in her 20s, said participants are mainly young girls, some as young as 10.
She said the sex offender attended the event on June 4, and allegedly mingled with several young attendees.
"Knowing that the predator came from the (Harajuku Fashion Walk Singapore) community itself makes me uneasy," she said.
The screenshots uploaded on Facebook by Ms N showed a user named Noriaki Tsuchiya defending the sex offender.
"I don't think it's a problem that 14-year-olds and 34-year-olds had sex with their consent," the user said.
"Young people should not be in tune with these prehistoric laws. This is a fundamental issue of human rights, free love, and should not be controlled by law."
The user also claimed the law is due to political correctness and said the convicted sex offender is a victim of it.
The Penal Code criminalises sex with a minor under the age of 16, even if the minor consented to the act.
If the minor is 14 and above, but under the age of 16, offenders may be jailed for up to 10 years and fined, or up to 20 years and fined and caned if they were in an exploitative relationship with the victim.
If the minor is under 14, offenders may be jailed for up to 20 years and fined and caned.
ST learnt that the main organiser of the Harajuku Fashion Walk Singapore is one Tsuchiya Noriaki, 49.
The Facebook account used to send the messages defending the sex offender was linked to a company called Street Angels Singapore.
Business records showed that Mr Noriaki was the director of the company which was struck off in 2017.
He declined to comment when contacted.
The screenshots also showed another committee member saying the committee should not "gatekeep anyone because of an unfortunate incident".
The user said: "If we have the freedom to wear what we want, why can't we also have the freedom to do what we want?
"I personally believe that we are all people with freedom of expression, hence we should not confine to society easily too."
ST has tried contacting the other committee members on Facebook, but none responded.
Lawyer Joshua Tong of Kalco Law said that while the sex offender is not allowed to contact the victim under bail conditions, nothing prevents him from participating in events where young girls are present.
"If he reoffends or fails to comply with the bail conditions, then he'll most likely be taken into custody immediately and a stiff deterrent sentence will be imposed for such recalcitrant conduct whilst on bail," he said.
"But otherwise, there is nothing stopping him from going back to the event as long as he does not commit any further criminal offence."
He said employers and event organisers would usually gatekeep and protect their workplaces and communities.
But Mr Tong added: "There can't be a law that says he can't go near any 14-year-olds for example. Such a law would be difficult to enforce and would raise other issues."
Clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet said that minors are vulnerable, and may be influenced by the lifestyles of the adults around them.
These include smoking, drinking and sexual promiscuity.
"Whether the sex was consensual or not is besides the point," she said.
"There is a lot of grooming psychologically when it comes to minors, who may do anything to try and appear more mature than they really are."
Dr Balhetchet said that this may include participating in sexual activities even when they are not mentally or emotionally mature enough to understand what they are getting into.
In the offender's case, the man taught the girl how to perform sexual acts.
"That's what the laws are for. They're meant to protect the young and vulnerable," said Dr Balhetchet.
She urged the group to be responsible and ensure the safety of their community by screening participants to ward off potential risks.
"It may be best for the organisers to err on the side of caution, in consideration of the recent incident involving a young girl ," she said.
"As a society, we need to protect the vulnerable."