Friday, 21 February 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 1 - 19 Feb 2014

Wet roads and intoxication caused construction worker's fall
CCTV footage on day of riot shows he tripped on his own, falling into bus' path
By Francis Chan, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

IN LESS than half a minute, construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu went from a man chasing after a departing bus to being pinned under its massive wheels.

His death was horrific and instantaneous, and sparked a riot that led to the worst violence in Singapore for more than four decades.

These last moments of Mr Sakthivel's life were played over and over on video screens yesterday as a high-profile public hearing into the Dec 8 incident in Little India got under way yesterday at the Subordinate Courts.



The graphic CCTV footage showing how he died was taken from a camera installed in the left-wing-mirror of the bus, and lasted no more than 30 seconds.

But it was clear enough to show that the accident was the result of Mr Sakthivel's own actions. Alcohol had slowed his reflexes and made him unsteady, and as the force of the turning bus pushed against him, he tripped and fell into its path.

This was backed up by forensics veteran Michael Tay, an accident reconstruction expert, who reaffirmed what was seen in the clip after conducting a frame-by-frame analysis and doing re-enactments of the incident using life-sized models.

Another video shown debunked news reports by foreign media alleging that Mr Sakthivel had been manhandled or pushed off the bus earlier. The clip, retrieved from a second CCTV camera mounted inside the bus, showed the construction worker slowly getting off the bus after he was ordered to by the female timekeeper who was coordinating the bus services along Tekka Lane.

"Sir, you can see him alighting from the bus alone without anyone pushing him or manhandling him," Senior State Counsel David Khoo told the four-man Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday.

The COI, which is chaired by former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam, has been tasked with making sense of the events surrounding the violence and outlining the possible factors that may have led to it. It is scheduled to submit its report to the Home Affairs Minister by June 13.

Video footage like this took centrestage on day one of the inquiry, capturing scenes of an angry mob - mainly of South Asian ethnicity - turning on the bus driver, Mr Lee Kim Huat, 55, and the timekeeper, Madam Wong Geck Woon, 38, after the fatal accident.

Others were caught on tape shouting and hurling projectiles into the bus after the two ran back into the bus to take cover. Both Mr Lee and Madam Wong will be appearing before the COI today.

Earlier in the morning, Mr Khoo outlined how the inquiry will be organised in the weeks to come. The first three weeks will be spent establishing how the riot unfolded and how the Police and Singapore Civil Defence Force managed the incident.

The next phase - lasting another three weeks - will be dedicated to exploring the facts and circumstances that led to the riot.

The inquiry will then close with deliberations on what measures are already in place to prevent the recurrence of the riot and what future measures may need to be implemented.

In all, 117 witnesses are expected to testify. They include eye-witnesses, forensics and medical experts, emergency first-responders, as well as migrant worker groups, shopkeepers and dor- mitory operators.

Evidence by the COI-appointed investigation team led by senior narcotics officer Adam Fashe Huddin will also be presented. More than 300 people were interviewed by the team leading up to the hearing.

"We have much to do in the coming weeks," noted Mr Khoo. "The main themes of the Inquiry can be summed up in three words: "how", "why" and "what"?"






Expert details how worker was run over
Video footage studied, experiments done to piece events together
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

A FORENSIC expert yesterday gave a detailed account, down to the hundredths of a second, of exactly how the fatal traffic accident that would cause Singapore's worst public order disturbance in more than four decades occurred.

Senior consultant forensic scientist Michael Tay showed how video footage was scrutinised and experiments conducted in a controlled environment to piece together how a private bus came to run over construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu.

Apart from taking precise measurements at the scene ranging from the lengths of road lane markings and distances between lamp posts, a 1.72m-tall model - the same height as Mr Sakthivel - was also used to re-enact the scene in field experiments.

"The landmarks are very important to us, because we can determine the speed of the bus at different segments of Tekka Lane," said Dr Tay, who was engaged by the Traffic Police to be an independent expert for the case.

Giving a blow-by-blow account of the accident on the first day of the Committee of Inquiry hearing, Dr Tay provided a frame-by-frame analysis of video footage taken from four cameras mounted on the bus.

Although it was shown in open court, the footage was not released to the media.

"The first time I saw it I was very troubled," said committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam.

"I don't want it to be released in public or on mass media. It would be irresponsible to show the video to the public."

One clip showed Mr Sakthivel, 33, being asked to get off the BT & Tan private bus after he dropped his bermuda shorts, first by an unidentified foreign worker, and then by timekeeper Wong Geck Woon.

After he alighted, the bus waited for a few more passengers before moving off along Tekka Lane at a speed of 4.2kmh. At that time, Mr Sakthivel was walking along the same road.

He chased after the bus as it passed him, walking beside the front passenger door and keeping pace at a speed of between 4.2kmh and 5.6kmh for 11 seconds.

But as the bus accelerated along the straight stretch of road to 9kmh, Mr Sakthivel gradually lost pace, disappearing from the field of vision of both the bus' mirrors and video camera for a good four seconds.

The bus then slowed down to 3.5kmh as it neared the stop line at the junction of Tekka Lane and Race Course Road. This was when Mr Sakthivel caught up, placing his right palm on the bus, although there was "no gripping point", said Dr Tay.

His hand was on the bus for 1.64 seconds before he tripped and fell into its path. The bus accelerated to 10.8kmh as it turned left onto the main road.

The forensic expert noted that the bus was "off-tracking" as it turned - a phenomenon where the rear wheels do not follow the same path as the front.

He estimated the off-tracking movement of the bus to be 1.51m, far wider than the assumed distance from Mr Sakthivel's palm to the midline of his body of 72cm.

"This had a pushing effect against the deceased. Then his right palm began to slide," said Dr Tay. As Mr Sakthivel fell forward, he landed face first with his head about 33cm in front of the bus.

"He did not move from his position, he had no time to react," noted Dr Tay.

As the bus turned, it ran over the fallen Mr Sakthivel - first over his torso, then his neck and his head.

The force exerted by the bus dragged Mr Sakthivel's entire body beneath its undercarriage, requiring the bus to be jacked up for him to be extricated.





THE DRIVER: Hard for him to see worker
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

INDIAN national Sakthivel Kumaravelu was in the bus driver's blind spot for around four critical seconds in the moments before he was run over and killed.

"The deceased was not visible to the bus driver in either the left mirror, or through the front door, during the critical period," senior consultant forensic scientist Michael Tay yesterday told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into Dec 8's Little India riot.

He said that conditions at the time also made it difficult for driver Lee Kim Huat, 55, to see Mr Sakthivel when the bus pulled ahead and the man was no longer alongside the front door of the bus.

Dr Tay pointed out that the area was crowded with people.

Not only were there many pedestrians by the sidewalk, there were also about 20 to 30 of them near the bus as it was turning left from Tekka Lane onto Race Course Road.

"Many pedestrians were crossing (the road) a few metres in front of the moving bus, or walking along the centre white line", he said.

Mr Lee also had to focus on driving his bus around two other stationary ones parked on the left lane of Tekka Lane, and watch for oncoming traffic as he was turning onto Race Course Road.

Meanwhile, his vision would have been affected by the glare from bright external lights.

With it being a rainy evening, water droplets on glass could also affect vision through the scattering of light and reflection.

All these added to the difficulty in picking out pedestrians, who would be "less easily detected" at night due to a person's "smaller size and profile" compared with a vehicle, which is larger, had sharper outlines and headlights.

COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam pointed out that there were four cameras on the bus.

He said: "Brahma (a Hindu god) has four heads and can see everywhere. Effectively, the driver has four electronic heads too." But Dr Tay said the size of each image on the monitor measures 7.65cm by 4.3cm, and that Mr Lee would have to look down at the dashboard, which meant taking his eyes off the road.

Even if he did spot Mr Sakthivel in the monitor, normal human perception and reaction time takes between 1.5 and 2.5 seconds, Dr Tay said.

Mr Lee, who will not face any criminal charges after the Attorney-General's Chambers found him not culpable of any offence, is expected to testify today.







THE DEAD MAN: Fatal decision to chase bus
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

WALKING unsteadily, his left hand clutching an umbrella, construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu spotted the bus he had just been ejected from, and decided to give chase. That decision, made in a state of inebriation, would cost him his life less than a minute later.

Yesterday, video footage from the bus as well as autopsy and toxicology reports painted a clear picture of the final moments of the 33-year-old Indian national's life.

A 30-second clip showed the bus moving along Tekka Lane at about 5kmh, when Mr Sakthivel entered the frame. He noticed that it was the bus he was asked to alight from, and he followed alongside it.

The man appeared to be "walking in an unsteady manner" and "meandering" along a straight path, said Dr Michael Tay, an accident reconstruction expert who gave his testimony to the Committee of Inquiry yesterday.

The clip went on to show that as the bus sped up, Mr Sakthivel broke into a run but fell behind. He caught up, and was seen tapping the bus with his right palm as the bus turned into Race Course Road.

But with his palm still on the bus, he lost his footing and fell forward. Moments later, he was run over by the left front wheel of the turning bus.

Besides a crushed voice box, multiple rib fractures and a ruptured lung, Mr Sakthivel suffered a skull fracture, with most of the brain matter spilt after the accident.

Describing these injuries yesterday, Dr Marian Wang, the forensic pathologist who carried out the autopsy on Mr Sakthivel's body, said that death was instantaneous.

When asked by the committee's chairman G. Pannir Selvam if Mr Sakthivel could have cried out for help immediately after the accident, she replied: "No... because the injuries would have been immediately fatal. The brain is no longer there, so there is no nervous stimulation."

A toxicology report tendered to the court also showed that Mr Sakthivel had a blood alcohol level of 2.17, almost three times the legal limit for driving.

Asked by Mr Selvam to extrapolate how much beer he could have consumed on the night of the accident, Dr Wang said the amount could have been about 2 litres of beer at 4.5 per cent alcohol level - although she also stressed that this was a theoretical and possibly inaccurate figure.

But she noted in her report that the level of ethanol in Mr Sakthivel's body would have resulted in moderate to severe intoxication in an average individual.

A moderate level of intoxication could result in loss of balance, inability to walk in a straight line, confusion and delayed reaction time, among other effects, she explained.

Dr Tay added that besides the alcohol in his system, Mr Sakthivel likely fell because of a "combination of factors" that ranged from the wet ground from an earlier downpour to the fact that both his arms were not free and he could not swing either of them.

That his right hand was on a moving and turning bus meant he "would have to match his movement and speed equally to that of the bus", noted Dr Tay, who believed that this "complicated his movement".

It was therefore likely that Mr Sakthivel could have misjudged speed and distance and engaged in "mistaken behaviour" given his level of intoxication, Dr Wang testified.





THE HERO: Man identified, but not found
By Francis Chan, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

THE Good Samaritan captured on camera trying to fend off an angry mob attacking the private bus during the Dec 8 Little India riot has been identified by investigators for the Committee of Inquiry (COI).

The valiant hero, however, will not be testifying before the four-man panel led by former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam, the inquiry was told yesterday.

"Efforts have been made but I understand he has not been found," said Senior State Counsel David Khoo, when asked by the committee if the man had been traced. "The investigating team has told me they have established his identity, but I understand he has left the country."

His identity was also not revealed at the inquiry yesterday.

The man, who was wearing a black-and-white plaid shirt and is believed to be an Indian national, braved the stones and slurs hurled by rioters at bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Geck Woon as they took cover in the bus during the early part of the violence.

The Good Samaritan had reportedly rushed from the crowd, shoved Madam Wong up the steps of the bus and told the bus driver to lock the vehicle as the violence continued.

A 38-year-old electrician from Chennai had stepped forward a few days after the riot claiming to be the hero.

But questions were raised over the authenticity of his claim after reporters interviewed him at an eatery in Little India.

Mr Thangaval Govindarasu, later admitted that he was not who he had claimed to be.





Small turnout at public gallery
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

THE Little India riot may have captured the nation's attention and raised serious questions about its causes and consequences, but the turnout on the first day of the public hearings into the incident was noticeably muted.

Aside from officers from the Attorney-General's Chambers, which is leading evidence on behalf of the State in the Committee of Inquiry hearings, the majority of those who turned up were members of the local media and civil servants from agencies such as the Ministry of Home Affairs.

When the proceedings started at 10am, more than 10 seats remained empty in the courtroom, which had a capacity of 40 seats for the public.

One notable person at the session was civil activist Vincent Wijeysingha, who had placed wreaths at the site of the accident that killed Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu. Dr Wijeysingha declined to comment when approached by the media, saying he would be giving evidence later in the inquiry.

A handful of people, who appeared to be retirees, turned up at the start of the proceedings and left shortly after a video clip showing the last moments before Mr Sakthivel's death was played to the courtroom by Senior State Counsel David Khoo.

Mr Sakthivel's next-of-kin were absent from the hearing. Mr Khoo told the Committee the investigators had not received any requests from them to take part in the inquiry.

Timekeeper Wong Gek Woon and Mr Lee Kim Huat, driver of the bus that killed Mr Sakthivel, are expected to give evidence today.

One of the bus passengers will also give his eyewitness account. He will be followed by Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar, who was Acting Commissioner on the night of the riot.





Straits Times taken to task for bus driver story
By Sujin Thomas, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

THE Straits Times was taken to task by the chairman of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday, as he warned the media not to interfere in the proceedings of the six-week hearing.

The newspaper yesterday published an interview with the bus driver involved in the fatal traffic accident that sparked last year's Little India riot.

In the article, Mr Lee Kim Huat, 55, recounted how he felt about being in the accident on the night of Dec 8 and the stressful months before he was cleared of any wrongdoing last week.

Nearly two hours into the COI proceedings, Senior State Counsel David Khoo held up a copy of the Straits Times report in court and sought the advice of the chairman, former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam.

Mr Selvam said he had seen the report, which he felt was in "plain contempt of court" as it was a case of "plain and simple interference with witnesses".

Issuing a warning, he said: "While we may just overlook this case, this should not be repeated and if it is then we will take severe action against them."

He reiterated that the media should not interfere in proceedings by interviewing witnesses before they come before the tribunal.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) has been assisting the inquiry to present evidence in the six-week hearing and Mr Khoo is leading the team.

The former judge also told the proceedings that many media requests had been made to meet members of the four-man COI to seek their views on their likely decision.

"All these are first unnecessary and highly improper. Our duty is to enquire, find out and report to the minister. But these reporters think that we have got to report to them first and then the minister. No, we don't do that."

Noting that the reporters were all "eager beavers" who liked scoops, he said he had also rejected requests for video footage.

The chairman also took issue with another report in another newspaper - which he did not name - when he noted that there had been suggestions as to whom the COI panel should appoint to lead the evidence.

On Monday, freesheet Today had carried a letter from activist Vincent Wijeysingha arguing that the AGC should not be leading evidence because of a conflict of interest as it represents the Government.

Noting that this was "highly improper", Mr Selvam said: "If anybody thinks that you, your witnesses or anybody else can fool us, then you'll be fooling yourselves because we have had enough experience...

"We know what we are doing. We don't need your guidance or advice or anything like that."

The COI panel was "not here to rubber stamp" or "sit down and write what you are going to tell us", he said.

"We are doing our work and we will do that. Tell the press (that) if they do such a thing again, we will take action against them," he said.

Mr Khoo said that any more such reports found would be brought to the attention of the COI panel.

Commenting on the Straits Times report, its editor Warren Fernandez said last night: "It was not our intention to interfere with the work of the Committee of Inquiry as it goes about its crucial task of getting to the bottom of what happened on the night of Dec 8, and why. We apologise that our report crossed that line."





Inquiry to focus on how, why and lessons
117 witnesses to be called; COI will first find out how the riot unfolded
By Sujin Thomas, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2014

WITH a total of 117 witnesses to be called, the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot will focus its work on three main themes, said Senior State Counsel David Khoo yesterday.

He said: "The main themes of the inquiry can be summed up in three words: 'how', 'why' and 'what'"

How it happened

THE COI will aim to, firstly, find out how the fatal traffic accident occurred on Dec 8 last year, how the riot unfolded and how the authorities managed it.

The first three weeks of the hearing will be spent on doing this, and witnesses include those involved in the accident, such as the bus driver and a female timekeeper who was coordinating the buses that night.

A total of 27 Singapore Police Force (SPF) first responders and 16 Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers are also expected to take the stand, along with their commanders. Of the police witnesses, Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar will be the first to testify, while Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee will be the last.

Mr Khoo said of Mr Ng: "He will provide a comprehensive overall review of actions of the police on the night in question and address strategic issues arising from the incident."

Why it happened

THE fourth to sixth weeks of the inquiry will be spent on trying to establish the facts and circumstances that led to the riot, said Mr Khoo.

"In the weeks following the riot, there has been much debate and speculation as to the underlying causes for the incident. Many have attributed the incident to the ill-effects of alcohol and others to the mistreatment of workers (salary and employment issues)."

He noted that it is "entirely possible" that the incident could be attributed to a combination of factors rather than a single one.

"This remains an issue for the committee's deliberation and determination," he said.

During this phase, evidence will come from shopkeepers - including the vice-president of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association - foreign workers and eight residents in Little India.

They will help determine if alcohol was a factor that contributed to the incident.

The court will also hear from representatives of the Land Transport Authority and from both the Singapore Transport Association and the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners' Association. These transport service providers will discuss the "genesis, the nature and the challenges encountered" in providing bus services to foreign workers to and from Little India.

Mr Khoo said three non-governmental organisations - Maruah, Transient Workers Count Too and Workfair Singapore - will also give their views on factors that could have sparked the riot.

The investigation team has also contacted the Migrant Workers Centre, the Singapore Contractors Association and the Building, Construction and Timber Employees Union to give evidence. "In the same vein, the evidence of foreign workers and representatives from the Ministry of Manpower and foreign worker dormitories will enable the committee to ascertain if allegations of ill-treatment are borne out..." said Mr Khoo.

He noted that the COI conducted interviews with 20 of the 57 repatriated foreign workers and interacted with other foreign workers during visits to dormitories in Tagore Lane, Avery Lodge and Jurong Penjuru Dormitory.

This was done in the lead-up to the inquiry and will provide an "insight" into the nature of the issues, concerns and problems faced by these workers, as well as the factors and circumstances that might have contributed to the riot.

What needs to be improved

THE inquiry will conclude with the Central Narcotics Bureau's lead investigator Adam Fashe Huddin as the final witness.

"He will summarise his investigations and put forth his recommendations for the committee's consideration," Mr Khoo said.

In deliberating what future measures ought to be implemented, the committee may adopt steps which are "multi-faceted in nature", he added.

The committee must submit its report to the Home Affairs Minister by June 13.


Related
Little India Riot
Little India Riot COI: End of public hearing
Little India Riot COI Report - 30 Jun 2014

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