SINGAPORE — As a young boy in Nigeria, Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi witnessed a massacre in his hometown of Wukari, during which he was almost killed, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afterwards.
So when he was arrested in Singapore by anti-narcotics officers for drug trafficking in 2011 – after unknowingly handling a luggage containing drugs – Ilechukwu overestimated the threat to his life and spun a web of lies in a bid to save his skin. He felt that the raid by officers on his hotel room was akin to “war” and “chaos”.
Ilechukwu was so distressed by the arrest and his charge, which carried the death penalty, that he refused food and drink thrice when offered. And he believed that lying would get him out of his traumatic predicament.
But his lies and omissions to law enforcement officers resulted in Ilechukwu spending nine years behind bars.
On Thursday (17 September), Ilechukwu, now 34, was finally acquitted of his trafficking charge after a government psychiatrist earlier found that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) when his statements containing blatant falsehoods were recorded.
The Court of Appeal, in a split 4-1 ruling, found that there was “a rational and credible connection between (his) PTSS and the lies and omissions in his statements (to law enforcement officers)”.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, along with Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, and Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin comprised the majority of the apex court which ruled in favour of acquittal.
However, Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang, who dissented, said in his judgment that Ilechukwu’s “excuses for the lies were wholly unsatisfactory and unbelievable and there was no acceptable explanation for the lies save for his realisation of guilt”.
About the case
On 13 November 2011, Ilechukwu arrived in Singapore with a black suitcase that a friend had given him to pass along to someone else. Inside, unbeknownst to him, was not less than 1,963.3g of methamphetamine.
At the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, the bag underwent a physical check and X-ray scan without incident. When he arrived at Changi Airport, Ilechukwu was detained for questioning before being released. The luggage also underwent both an X-ray scan and a physical check, again without incident.
Ilechukwu later went to a hotel in Chinatown but did not have enough Singapore dollars on him. He left the suitcase at the lobby for 12 minutes in search of a moneychanger.
Later that night, he was contacted to pass the bag to a woman, Hamidah Awang. He met Hamidah and passed her the bag in her car and later went back to his hotel.
Hamidah was stopped at Woodlands Checkpoint later that same night with the black luggage in her car. Officers cut open the sides of the bag to reveal the stash of drugs.
The next morning, Ilechukwu was arrested by a party of officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) who raided his hotel room.
Various statements were recorded from him on that day and in the following days, in which he told a series of lies and also omitted information.
Three years after he was arrested, on 5 November 2014, the High Court acquitted Ilechukwu of his trafficking charge after the judge accepted his evidence that he came to Singapore to buy electronic goods for his business – he had brought along US$5,000 with him and a Singapore company director testified that he had arranged a Singapore visa for Ilechukwu.
The High Court judge, Justice Lee Seiu Kin, also found the Ilechukwu’s conduct was inconsistent with knowledge of the drugs. The judge also noted that the drugs “were so well hidden that (Ilechukwu) could not have known about it unless he was told of it”.
But the prosecution appealed against the acquittal and Ilechukwu remained in remand.
The next year, on 29 June 2015, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal. The key issue that the apex court – comprising Justices Chao, Phang and Tay – considered was: whether Ilechukwu lied for innocent reasons, or did so because he knew that telling the truth would link him to the crime.
The court found that his lies were more consistent with having had knowledge of the drugs before his arrest. Said the apex court then, “It is clear to us that he had deliberately lied to distance himself from the drugs in the black luggage, the existence of which he knew. Quite simply, there is no acceptable explanation for the lies save for his realisation of his guilt. To suggest that (Ilechukwu) was justified to lie as a defensive move would be to turn reason and logic on its head.”
Following the conviction by the Court of Appeal, the case was sent back to the High Court for sentencing.
It was during this stage, in March 2017, that a psychiatric report stated that Ilechukwu was suffering from PTSD, and that his symptoms were triggered after he was told by CNB officers that he faced the death penalty and that the PTSD caused him to lie in his statements.
In light of the new and important evidence, Ilechukwu applied to the apex court the next month to reassess his conviction.
In August that year, in a rare move, the Court of Appeal agreed that the psychiatric report raised a “powerful probability” that the conviction finding made by the apex court earlier was wrong and allowed the case to be reopened. The apex court then asked the High Court to make findings on the extent to which PTSD affected Ilechukwu when he gave his statements to the CNB, among other things, before it heard the case.
Four psychiatrists in all testified on PTSD before the High Court. In July last year, the court found that Ilechukwu was suffering from PTSS at the time he gave his statements. The case then went back to the apex court.
On Thursday, the Court of Appeal said in the majority judgment, “Having analysed the totality of the evidence apart from the lies and omissions, we find that it is more probable than not that (Ilechukwu) did not know that there were drugs in the black luggage.
“(He) has consistently maintained that he came to Singapore for a business purpose and was asked by (an acquaintance) to help pass the black luggage – which was checked multiple times – and it seems to us that both these assertions are plausible and credible, viewed in the light of all the circumstances...
“The picture that emerges from the evidence is that (Ilechukwu) had grossly misjudged (a friend and an 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 (the acquaintance’s) contact in Singapore.”
Justice Chao, who wrote the majority judgment, added that if the psychiatric evidence had been before him and Justice Phang while they were sitting on the apex court bench earlier, they would not have overturned Justice Lee’s acquittal.
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