Norwegian who assaulted cabby has suffered 'serious injustice': Lawyer
He was released from prison on bail yesterday after serving more than half of his sentence for assaulting a taxi driver - because of an unexpected twist in the case.
Two witnesses have come forward to give a different account of what transpired during the incident in Boat Quay in September last year.
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Mr Mohamed Ayub Shaik Dawood, a Fullerton Hotel employee, and his friend, Mr Roslan Zainal, have filed affidavits to describe what they had seen that night, which disputed the facts of the case.
As a result, Arne Corneliussen was back in court yesterday. This time, the 50-year-old Norwegian, who was clad in a purple prison uniform and handcuffed at the wrists, appeared in the High Court with a look of relief.
Corneliussen, who is a Singapore permanent resident, was sentenced to 10 weeks' jail last month after pleading guilty to assaulting cabby Chan Chuan Heng in Boat Quay on Sept 22 last year.
According to the facts of the case, he had turned violent and attacked Mr Chan, who wanted to take a toilet break, for refusing to take him as a fare.
But with the two fresh witnesses claiming that Mr Chan, and not Corneliussen, was the aggressor in the incident, Justice Chan Seng Onn yesterday quashed the guilty plea and sentence and sent the case back to the State Courts for a retrial.
Corneliussen, who has served six weeks of his jail term, was released on $5,000 bail.
The two witnesses testified in their affidavits that Corneliussen had not attacked Mr Chan. Instead, the cabby had first punched Corneliussen in the head during an argument about fares.
The Singaporeans, who were passing by the area at the time of the incident, said they did not see Corneliussen slap or choke Mr Chan.
They said they had read a newspaper report on the case and were disturbed as the account of what happened had differed greatly from what they saw.
They were surprised that Corneliussen had been jailed while Mr Chan went unpunished. They then went to Corneliussen's lawyer, Mr Terence Seah from Virtus Law, to give their accounts.
Submitting a petition to free Corneliussen in the High Court yesterday, Mr Seah read out the witnesses' affidavits and said his client had suffered from "a serious injustice".
He added that Corneliussen had pleaded guilty because he was drunk that night and did not have any recollection of the details of the altercation. He was informed by the police that the prosecution had eyewitnesses.
Said Mr Seah: "Arne was compelled to plead guilty by the circumstances."
Corneliussen had pleaded guilty to one count of voluntarily causing hurt. A second charge of slapping the cabby was taken into consideration during sentencing.
He admitted to being drunk at the time and said in his statement that it was "not (his) nature" to be violent.
Given the "exceptional turn of events", the prosecution did not object to the conviction and sentence being quashed and a retrial.
But Deputy Public Prosecutor Wong Kok Weng said this did not mean the earlier conviction was wrong.
He said the new witnesses were not at the scene when the police arrived and did not come forward during investigations.
Two other passers-by had told the police that they saw Corneliussen chasing Mr Chan and choking him, Mr Wong added.
He also disagreed that the Norwegian had been compelled to plead guilty and he knew the consequences of making a guilty plea.
In court, Corneliussen kept his head bowed and stayed silent.
In his own affidavit, he said the accounts of Mr Ayub and Mr Roslan were not available when he made his plea, hence raising "serious doubt" on the conviction.
"I was given a harsh sentence by the district judge on the basis that there was a 'sustained and brutal' attack by reason of the alleged slap, which Mr Mohamed and Mr Roslan say I did not do," he added.
As a result of the case, Corneliussen said he lost his job as a DHL director and had been in jail for about six weeks.
He had also met Mr Chan and paid him $30,000 in compensation and as a gesture of goodwill.
Corneliussen, who has an Indonesian wife living in Bali and a son and daughter based in Norway, said in his affidavit: "Mr Chan has profited from his dishonesty."
Both sides agreed to the $5,000 bail, which was put up by Corneliussen's former DHL colleague, Mr Steve Whorf, who was present during the hearing, along with another friend of Corneliussen's and representatives from the Norwegian Embassy.
Mr Whorf told The New Paper: "It means a lot to us now that the case is back in court. I am very impressed that these two new witnesses came out of the blue to testify."
He went to receive his friend outside Admiralty West Prison when a visibly happy Corneliussen was released at 6pm yesterday.
Said Mr Whorf: "There'll probably be a barbecue after this."
The case will be heard again in court at a later date.
WHAT WAS SAID IN COURT EARLIER
The incident occurred in Boat Quay, at the intersection of Circular Road and North Canal Road, at around 1am on Sept 22.
Earlier hearings included the testimonies of taxi driver Chan Chuan Heng, 46, and two witnesses, taxi driver Choithramani Chandrul Bhaqwandas, 45, and senior operations supervisor Muhd Fairuz Jumahat, 28.
According to the statement of facts:
- The altercation started when a drunk Arne Corneliussen tried to enter the parked taxi after Mr Chan told him that he was about to go for a toilet break.
- Corneliussen responded by slapping the cabby. Incensed, Mr Chan said: "What the f***, why you hit me?"
- Corneliussen then charged towards the cabby, chasing him as he ran away. He stopped and returned to the taxi before charging towards Mr Chan again.
- Mr Chan fell to the ground while running away. Corneliussen caught up with him and pinned him down.
- Corneliussen used one of his arms to choke the victim from behind for about 15 seconds.
WHAT NEW WITNESSES SAY
Mr Mohamed Ayub Shaik Dawood, who works at Fullerton Hotel, and his friend, Mr Roslan Zainal, were walking towards Boat Quay to get a taxi when they allegedly saw the altercation.
They left the scene when they thought the altercation had ended.
- The confrontation was over the taxi fare, and Arne Corneliussen was allegedly heard shouting: "Why so expensive? You cheat me?"
- Cabby Chan Chuan Heng responded by loudly telling the Norwegian to "f*** off". Corneliussen later testified that Mr Chan was trying to charge a flat fare instead of using the taxi meter.
- Mr Chan then allegedly punched Corneliussen in the head, who squatted down. Corneliussen appeared to be dazed and later said he felt pain on the left side of his head.
- Mr Chan entered the taxi and Corneliussen popped his head into the taxi and shouted, "Why do you want to run?" Mr Chan then left the cab and ran away when he saw Corneliussen moving towards him.
- Mr Chan tripped and fell three times, moving unsteadily after each fall. Corneliussen stopped chasing each time until the last when he pinned down Mr Chan to restrain him.
- Corneliussen was not choking Mr Chan, who was panting and out of breath.