CNB probes woman’s claims its treatment of her son 'Justin' led to suicide

·Editorial Team
·5 min read
(SCREENCAP: Cecilia Ow/Facebook)
(SCREENCAP: Cecilia Ow/Facebook)

SINGAPORE — The Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore (CNB) on Wednesday (13 October) said that it is "fully" investigating the circumstances of the arrest of a male teenager who allegedly died by suicide following his encounters with the bureau's officers.

The findings from the investigations, expected to be completed before end-October, will be made available publicly by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), said the CNB in a Facebook post, adding that the ministry will also take "further steps as necessary".

The bureau's response comes a day after Facebook user Cecilia Ow, who identified herself as the 17-year-old's mother, made several allegations online about her son's encounter in a four-page letter issued to Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam

According to images of the letter – sent on 1 October – that Ow posted, it was also emailed to President Halimah Yacob, Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim, and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Ow said that Shanmugam had responded to the letter with a phone call to assure her that his office would investigate the matter. 

"But till (12 October), nothing. My MP, Sylvia Lim, responded via email and followed up with a personal visit with advice and (an) offer to help. Her sincerity touched me deeply," she added.

CNB's timeline of its interaction with the boy

The CNB detailed a timeline of its interaction with the boy, referred to as "Justin" in its post, stating that it had investigated the teenager as he was suspected of trafficking a Class A controlled drug online. 

The teenager was arrested on the evening of 3 February at Serangoon North Ave 4, while the drugs were recovered from another location that was nearby. 

"The evidence indicated that the drugs belonged to ‘Justin’ and that they were meant for sale," said the CNB, adding that the teenager was released on bail the next day.

Following the arrest, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) directed in June that "Justin" be charged for drug trafficking offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

The teenager was asked to report to the CNB headquarters on 23 June, where he was served with the charges and released on the same day. He was then charged in court the next day and released on court bail – an exception that was made because of his young age, said the CNB.

The bureau also added that it is aware that "Justin" had died on 16 September after a fall "from height" and that police are investigating his death.

Senior CNB officers have been engaging the teenager's mother since 20 September and last met her on 8 October, it said.

"The CNB assured her that there would be full investigations and provided her with the timeframe required for the investigations. She was also told that the findings will be shared with her," the CNB added.

Ow's letter to Shanmugam received

The bureau also acknowledged Ow's letter to Shanmugam, stating that the minister had contacted her personally on 1 October to assure her that a thorough review into "Justin"’s arrest and investigations will be conducted. 

She was also provided with the contact details for Shanmugam and Minister of State for Ministry of Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, it said. 

"She was told that she could contact the Ministers directly, at any time, on this matter," added the bureau. "The CNB has also arranged for psychological support to be provided to her during this difficult period. The CNB understands 'Justin'’’s mother’s grief and will continue to render assistance to her."

In her letter, Ow had alleged that after his arrest on 3 February, "Justin" was taken to the Bedok police station where he was interrogated in an "abrasive" manner with vulgarities used, intimidated and denied water.

He was also not allowed to contact his next-of-kin and was not accompanied by an adult, she said, adding that he was held in custody under "less than ideal" conditions until she bailed him out the next day.

Ahead of his next encounter with authorities on 23 June at 12.30pm, the teenager and his family had no "prior knowledge" that he was going to be officially charged that day, Ow added.

"The eight hours of waiting and worrying was unwarranted," she said, claiming that her son was not allowed to reply to her text messages and that she was only informed by an officer that she was allowed to bail him out of custody much later.

She questioned why the CNB had not given the family an estimate of how long the interrogation would be and why her son had to go through the bail process more than once.

"Before all these happened, 'Justin' was an intelligent and witty child whose enthusiasm for learning made a positive impression on all his teachers," said Ow.

But after the encounters with authorities, he "withdrew into his shell" and slept poorly for months because he had recurring flashbacks and nightmares about the arrest, she said.

Mental health condition

Her son had, in 2019, been referred to the Institute of Mental Health after one of his schoolmates attempted suicide, whom he managed to save by calling the ambulance, Ow added.

He was diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia, early last year and was regularly attending psychotherapy sessions, she noted, adding that his investigation officer was informed of his mental health conditions prior to investigations. 

"I do not deny that 'Justin' committed an offence. And I know that the CNB officers were doing their jobs," said Ow.

But "the stress of the oppressive police entrapment, interrogation, and prosecution, waiting indefinitely for an outcome" – a legal process, Ow noted, meant for adult offenders – "broke him and killed him", she added.

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