At least 70 witnesses to testify at riot inquiry

File photo: A riot involving almost 400 people broke out in Little India along Race Course Road last December.

SINGAPORE - At least 70 witnesses will give evidence at the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearing on the Little India riot beginning next Wednesday. The public hearing at Court 13 of the Subordinate Courts is expected to last at least four weeks, said the COI Secretariat in a statement on Friday.

Among the witnesses is Mr Lee Kim Huat, 55, the driver of the BT & Tan private bus which ran over and killed 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu, thereby sparking the riot on Dec 8 last year.

Madam Wong Geck Woon, 38, the Singapore School Transport Association timekeeper who had told the intoxicated Mr Sakthivel to get off the bus after he dropped his bermuda shorts, will also testify.

Both were injured when an angry mob set upon them, as the situation deteriorated to become Singapore's worst public order disturbance in more than four decades.

Other witnesses include police and civil defence officers, and Little India business owners and residents. Dormitory operators and workers who were involved will also take the stand in the wide-ranging inquiry.

The COI's task is to establish how the riot unfolded and was managed by response teams, and consider whether current measures are adequate where foreign workers gather.

It will be presided over by a four-man panel chaired by former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam. It must submit its report to the Home Affairs Minister by June 13.

The COI Secretariat received 22 e-mails and letters from members of the public and three non-governmental organisations - Workfair Singapore, Maruah and Transient Workers Count Too - after its open call for information in December.

The panel has also spoken to workers at three dormitories on matters such as living conditions, as well as 20 of the 57 men repatriated in the aftermath.

But its job is not to determine the guilt of any individual and it will not interfere with any ongoing criminal cases.

On Tuesday, the Attorney- General's Chambers said Mr Lee, the bus driver, would not face any criminal charges as he was not found to have committed any offence in the accident.

Construction worker Singaravelu Vignesh, 23, is expected to be the second man to plead guilty next Monday to an amended charge of remaining in an assembly after it was ordered to disperse. Cases against 23 other Indian nationals are pending.

The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill, giving law enforcement officers enhanced powers in Little India, is also up for a second reading in Parliament next Monday.

Commenting on criticism that the Bill might be discriminatory, Ministry of Home Affairs deputy secretary for operations and development Roy Quek said existing laws allow police to search suspects. He told the Singapore Public Service magazine, Challenge, that the intention was not for officers to go into Little India to do strip searches.

Similar laws to ensure safety and security are found in the Public Order Act, which covers special events such as National Day and the Formula One Night Race. Mr Quek added: "We just ported (the laws) over to the special zone that is now Little India. So it's no different from what we already have."

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