The Singaporean Court of Appeal on Thursday September 17, stunned the world when in a rare ruling reversed its own decision to convict a Nigerian man of a capital offence of drug trafficking, a decade after he was arrested and taken into custody.
Nigerian born Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi faced a death sentence charge of trafficking almost 2kg (1,963.3g) of methamphetamine found in a black trolley bag he took with him from Nigeria into Singapore in 2011.
On Thursday, the apex court ruled 4-1 to acquit him with Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang dissenting. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin, and Judges of Appeal Judith Prakash and Andrew Phang ruled in Ilechukwu’s favour.
The four appeal judges found that he had suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms arising from a childhood trauma when he gave statements to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in 2011. This could have led to him giving “unsophisticated and blatant falsehoods” to the authorities.
Ilechukwu was acquitted after a trial in the High Court in 2014 but the apex court then reversed that decision in 2015 and found him guilty of drug trafficking.
His lawyers, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mr Suang Wijaya and Mr Johannes Hadi from Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, as well as Ms Jerrie Tan from K&L Gates Straits Law then successfully argued for the decision to be reviewed.
On Nov 13, 2011, Ilechukwu flew from Lagos, Nigeria to Singapore after collecting a black luggage at the Nigerian airport. He found only clothes in it and the luggage passed several immigrations checks in both countries without problems.
He handed the bag to a Singaporean stall assistant named Hamidah Awang at a Clarke Quay bus stop. Hamidah’s car was then searched at Woodlands Checkpoint and drugs were discovered in the luggage.
Ilechukwu was charged with trafficking in at least 1,963.3g of methamphetamine while Hamidah was charged with attempting to export the drugs.
In 2014, Justice Lee Seiu Kin acquitted Ilechukwu of the capital charge but convicted Hamidah. The High Court judge accepted that Ilechukwu had come to Singapore on business and did not know the luggage contained drugs.
The prosecution appealed against the acquittal and in June 2015, the Court of Appeal convicted Ilechukwu, finding that he had made “numerous lies and omissions” in his statements to the CNB that could not be explained.
The apex court then sent the case back to Justice Lee to determine if Ilechukwu should be given life imprisonment or the death penalty.
However, in 2017, his lawyers successfully persuaded the same panel of apex court judges to review the conviction due to a “unique turn of events”.
It was the first time in legal history where the Court of Appeal agreed that there could be enough new material to say that its previous decision was wrong.
An Institute of Mental Health (IMH) psychiatrist from the prosecution’s side had diagnosed Ilechukwu as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which arose as a result of childhood trauma. He had witnessed a massacre in his Nigerian hometown and was nearly killed.
The psychiatrist, Dr Jaydip Sarkar, found Ilechukwu’s PTSD symptoms were triggered after CNB officers told him that he faced the death penalty. Dr Sarkar also opined that Ilechukwu could have then lied to save his life.
Again, the Court of Appeal sent the case back to Justice Lee to hear new expert evidence on Ilechukwu’s mental state when he gave statements to the CNB in 2011.
Last year, the High Court judge found that Ilechukwu did previously suffer from PTSD and had experienced some post-traumatic stress symptoms when giving his statements.
On Thursday, the four apex court judges who acquitted Ilechukwu found that there was now a “plausible innocent explanation” for Ilechukwu’s lies and omissions.
His motive could no longer only be attributed to his guilty mind, they added.
The judges agreed that he suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms in 2011, accepting three psychiatric experts’ evidence that his mental conditions “may have led him to grossly overestimate the threat on his life”.
“This may in turn have prompted him to utter the unsophisticated and blatant falsehoods in his statements in an attempt to escape from the death penalty and to save his life… In the circumstances, it is unsafe to draw any adverse inference against him from his lies and omissions.” said Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin.
Ilechukwu, who had maintained that an acquaintance asked him to pass the luggage to Hamidah, likely did not know there were drugs in it too, the judges ruled.
“The picture that emerges from the evidence is that he had grossly misjudged (his childhood friend and acquaintance), and naively believed that he was doing a simple favour in return for promised business contacts.
“Unwittingly, he had been deceived into transporting drugs on their behalf to (their) contact in Singapore,” the judges added.
Meanwhile, Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang, the sole dissenting voice, said that Ilechukwu’s psychiatric disorders “would not have provided even a remotely satisfactory answer” to his lies and omissions.
The lies pointed “clearly and cogently” to his guilty mind, the judge added.
He also questioned why Ilechukwu did not tell the truth after about a week of persistently lying to the CNB and waited more than two years to do so in the initial High court trial.
In a statement after the acquittal, Ilechukwu’ lawyers said: “It has been a long and hard-fought pro bono case, involving specialist psychiatric evidence and issues of cross-cultural sensitivities. We are delighted that justice has prevailed to acquit our client this morning.
Congratulatory messages have been pouring in for Eugene Thuraisingam and his legal team since the acquittal.