SINGAPORE A Singapore court sentenced two Germans to nine months in prison and three strokes of the cane on Thursday after they pleaded guilty to breaking into a depot and spray-painting graffiti on a commuter train carriage.
Andreas Von Knorre, 22, and Elton Hinz, 21, both expressed remorse while being sentenced in the state courts of the island republic.
"This is the darkest episode of my entire life," said Von Knorre. "I want to apologize to the state of Singapore for the stupid act...I've learned my lesson and will never do it again."
Hinz added: "I promise I will never do it again. I want to apologize to you, and my family for the shame and situation I've put them into."
Both were dressed in prison uniform - a white T-shirt and brown trousers with the word "Prisoner" down the sides and on the back. They spoke to the court in English.
Singapore sentences hundreds of prisoners to caning each year as part of a system that has been criticized by rights groups. Vandalism and over-staying by foreigners are offences that can be punished by caning along with other crimes like kidnapping, robbery, drug abuse and sexual abuse.
According to the U.S. State Department, 2,203 caning sentences were carried out in 2012, including 1,070 foreigners caned for committing immigration offences.
"The Singapore judicial system’s shameful recourse to using torture – in the form of caning – to punish crimes that should be misdemeanors is indicative of a blatant disregard for international human rights standards," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
"One of the defendants said that sentencing day was the darkest day of his life, but in reality every day that Singapore keeps caning on its books is a dark day for the country’s international reputation," he said in an e-mail.
In Berlin, a foreign ministry official said the government respected the sovereignty of Singapore.
"But it speaks out against corporal punishment as a form of sentence worldwide - and that also means in Singapore," the official added. "The German government has made that clear."
The two Germans were accused of vandalism and trespass after they broke into one of Singapore's train depots last November to spray-paint a carriage.
They then fled Singapore, only to be tracked down in neighboring Malaysia in an international manhunt and were brought back to the city-state to face trial.
Their lawyers said they would meet the prisoners on Monday to decide on whether to appeal.
Almost five years ago, Swiss national Oliver Fricker was sentenced to seven months in jail and three strokes of the cane after he pleaded guilty to cutting through the fence of a train depot and spray-painting graffiti on train carriages.
Singapore, well known for its cleanliness and its zero tolerance for crime, uses the rattan cane to carry out the sentence. Prisoners are stripped and strapped to a wooden trestle with a medical officer on hand to intervene if necessary.
People who have been caned have called the pain excruciating.
For the two Germans, the court ordered four months imprisonment for entry into a protected area and another five months jail and three strokes of the cane for vandalism.
Singapore's vandalism laws became global news in 1994 when American teenager Michael Fay was caned for damaging cars and public property, despite appeals for clemency from the U.S. government, including then President Bill Clinton.
In recent years, Singapore has poured funds into nurturing and promoting its arts scene, including opening some public space for graffiti, as it works to change the city-state’s image beyond just an efficient business hub.
But its artists remain hindered by strict censorship and a tight government grip on the media. In 2012, local artist Samantha Lo was arrested for placing humorous stickers on traffic light poles and spray-painting road signs, triggering outcry and heated debates on the vandalism laws.
(additional reporting by Saeed Azhar and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore and Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)