Youth's claim of coercion rings true, lawyers say

April 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SINGAPORE -- Lost in the trans-Pacific debate about crime and punishment over the proposed caning of an 18-year-old American living here is a question that is on the minds of many Americans here: Did the teen-ager, Michael Peter Fay, really commit the crimes that could now result in six skin-splitting lashes from a rattan cane?

Although Mr. Fay signed a statement last fall in which he confessed to spray-painting cars during 10 days of vandalism, he has since insisted to friends and family that the confession was coerced during a police beating and that he is innocent of any crime.

Lawyers who work within the criminal justice system of this authoritarian city-state say that there may be reason to believe Mr. Fay, who had no criminal record either in Singapore or in the United States.

Interviews with more than 25 people in both countries who know Mr. Fay or are acquainted with his case suggest that substantial portions of his account can be corroborated, possibly including his description of a police beating of a 15-year-old Malaysian taken into custody with him last October.

Mr. Fay has said he signed the confession only after he was slapped and punched by police officers who held him in detention for nine days with little sleep and little access to his parents or to the U.S. Embassy.

The teen-ager said the police had threatened to subject him to hours of additional questioning in what they called "the air-con room," an ice-cold interrogation chamber, unless he confessed.

"I would like to state that this was a total lie I gave to the police, because I was only scared of what they will do to me," Mr. Fay said in a nine-page summary of his detention that is dated Oct. 20, six days after his release. "They had physically and mentally hurt me."

While Mr. Fay's allegations might be seen as desperate excuses, it may be possible to substantiate large portions of his statement, which suggests that Mr. Fay and his friends may have been so physically abused during their interrogations that they were forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit.

Mr. Fay described how another of the teen-agers taken into custody with him, the Malaysian who is still awaiting trial, was beaten so severely by the police that he had lost the hearing in one ear.

According to Mr. Fay's statement, the Malaysian, Tze Khong Choo, returned bloodied from one interrogation. "When Tze sat down, he told me that the investigator punched him in the nose, smacked his ear and hit him with some kind of bat," wrote Mr. Fay, who is now in prison.

Singapore lawyers say the summary prepared by Mr. Fay after his detention has the ring of truth, especially in his description of a brutal interrogation and of the "air-con" room," which the lawyers say is commonly used here to encourage confessions.

Mr. Fay's lawyers, who are now preparing a final clemency appeal to the Singapore government, say there is almost no physical evidence that ties Mr. Fay to the vandalism.

Stolen traffic signs, Singapore flags and a sheet of glass from a telephone booth were found in Mr. Fay's room, and he did plead guilty to possession of stolen property.

But Mr. Fay has insisted throughout that most of the items were actually stolen by a friend, the son of a Swedish diplomat, who has since returned to school in Sweden.

The diplomat, Anders Jansson of the Swedish Embassy in Singapore, acknowledged in an interview that the signs and flags were given to Mr. Fay by his son, who could not have been charged with a crime because of diplomatic immunity.

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