Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam hit out at "deliberate falsehoods" that have been spread in the Benjamin Lim case to blemish the police. He took particular aim at socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC), accusing it of a "planned, orchestrated campaign using falsehoods".
On Jan 26, the Secondary 3 student was found dead at the foot of the Housing Board block in Yishun where he lived. He had earlier been questioned by the police for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old girl.
On Feb 1, police released a statement announcing a review into procedures for interviewing young persons, and stressed that to keep investigations discreet, officers went in plain clothes and unmarked cars to Benjamin's school.
Yet this did not stop a number of inaccurate statements from being put out. These gave the impression that the police were effectively lying about being in plain clothes; that the 14-year-old was interviewed and intimidated by five police officers, was coerced into confessing, and was not offered food and drink while at the station.
There were even suggestions that the alleged victim may have made a false report to the police.
Yesterday in Parliament, Mr Shanmugam slammed TOC for publishing around 20 articles that included allegations that were "practically leading people to conclude that Benjamin committed suicide as a result" of how the police handled the case.
One article on Feb 5, he highlighted, claimed that officers went to North View Secondary School, where Benjamin studied, wearing attire stating "police". That was based on a posting by a woman named Mary Anne Pereira, who claimed that her son saw officers wearing polo T-shirts with police markings. Ms Pereira later told police that she got her dates mixed up. She also took down her post. "People make many statements online. They can be mistaken," said Mr Shanmugam. "That is why there is a court process, to establish the truth."
FALSE: Police officers were not in plain clothes when they went to the school. TRUTH: They were in plain clothes without any police markings.
FALSE: Five officers interviewed Benjamin Lim and intimidated him. He must have been coerced into admission. TRUTH: Only one officer spoke to him in school with the principal and four staff members around. He was interviewed by one officer at the police station.
FALSE: Benjamin was not offered food and drink. TRUTH: He declined the offer of food and drink.
FALSE: The girl may not have been molested and made a false report. TRUTH: Closed-circuit TV footage captured the incident.
Benjamin's death is the subject of a coroner's inquiry that will try to establish the cause of death and its facts. Mr Shanmugam pointed out that, as such, the rules of sub judice, which set out what can and cannot be said when a court hearing or inquiry is pending, apply. The speculation and insinuations about the facts may have broken these rules.
"And it's even more egregious when they are a bunch of lies," said Mr Shanmugam, responding to a clarification request from Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC).With assertions on the integrity of the police force and many ministers' questions, "people may misunderstand if the Government did not respond". This was why, after consulting the Attorney-General's Chambers, with "some regret, and considerable reservation", he decided to set the record straight before Parliament.
While some who commented on the matter may have had genuine questions, many commentaries were based on a misperception of the facts, Mr Shanmugam said. He expressed surprise at comments by lawyer Thio Shen Yi, published in the Law Gazette last month.
Senior Counsel Thio, who is president of the Law Society, wrote that five policemen visited the school, spoke to Benjamin in the principal's office and took the boy to the police station. Mr Thio also said the police should have behaved in a less intimidating way. "His statements imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation," said Mr Shanmugam. "Where the police are wrong, we must and will take action. But we should not allow deliberate, dishonest attacks," he said.
In a statement to The Straits Times, Mr Thio said the focus of his piece was that Singapore's criminal justice system should provide quick access to counsel, especially for the more vulnerable members of the public. "There was no intention to imply that Benjamin's tragic death was caused by police intimidation. In fact, the article specifically states that we will never know why Benjamin took his life that day."