Singapore opposition may be jailed for contempt of court

14 Mar 06

A Singapore opposition leader fears he is facing a lengthy jail term after questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary.

Chee Soon Juan, one of Singapore’s few opposition figures, is to appear in court Thursday to answer contempt of court allegations.

“I’m looking at jail time, prison time. How long, I don’t know… It’s really basically up to the judge,” Chee, 43, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, said in an interview with AFP.

Chee said he has served three previous jail terms — a total of about two months — for speaking publicly without a permit but he expects a more severe sentence this time.

The attorney-general filed a contempt of court action after a February 10 High Court hearing at which Chee was declared bankrupt. The bankruptcy order followed his failure to pay 500,000 Singapore dollars (307,000 US) in damages to the city’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and another former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.

During those proceedings, Chee read a three-page statement criticizing the city-state’s judiciary.

“Today I have made the decision not to remain silent any more and tell you what you don’t want to hear: That the judiciary in Singapore is, sadly, not independent especially when it comes to dealing with opposition politicians,” he told the court.

The Law Society of Singapore, in comments reported by the local press, called Chee’s allegations deeply detrimental to the rule of law. The Society was responding to Chee’s public request for it to get involved in his contempt case.

“The Law Society rejects the allegations that you have made concerning the independence of the judiciary,” the Society’s president was quoted as saying.

Interviewed at his office atop a row of shops, Chee said that before making the comments he had thought long and hard — ever since 1993 when he was first sued by a ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) member.

“It’s taken me all these years to summon up enough courage to, you know, tell the emperor that he has no clothes, and to make the preparations to be able to face the consequences.”

A member of the Singapore Democratic Party since 1992, Chee is a neuropsychologist with a doctorate from the University of Georgia in the United States. He said his practice lapsed because his political stance made it hard to receive referrals from medical professionals.

Political work now takes up most of his time. He is the author of four books about politics and another about parenting, and says he earns an income by selling them on the street.

Another Singapore opposition figure, J.B. Jeyaretnam, 80, has also been reduced to hawking his self-penned books after legal battles with the ruling PAP that bankrupted him.

J.B. Jeyaretnam was the first opposition member of parliament to break the PAP’s hold on seats, and he continues to speak out.

“I only have admiration for what he’s doing,” says Chee.

with his rimless eyeglasses, clean white shirt and dark slacks, Chee has the look of an intellectual and stares off, thoughtfully, as he speaks.

He said he is reluctantly prepared to leave his three young children in order to make a point about what he sees as wrong with the Singapore system.

“I’ve had a long discussion with my wife and we both agree that it’s something that needs to be done and if you do it, then you face the consequences.”

The High Court in January last year found Chee liable for damages as a result of remarks made about Goh and Lee during the October 2001 election campaign.

The cases involved accusations by Chee, which he later retracted, that the former prime ministers had lent about 10 billion US dollars to then-Indonesian president Suharto at the height of the East Asian financial crisis in 1998.

Lee, Goh and other members of the PAP, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, have a history of taking legal action against their political opponents and media critics. They argue they do so to protect their reputations.

Chee said he expects the government will call elections while he is in prison.

Even were he not in jail, his status as a bankrupt disqualifies him from running for office. He is preparing his party to field a few candidates and fight without him, but he says it is not easy in Singapore where people are afraid to associate with the opposition.

“People are just so fearful of, not just voting for the opposition, but deathly afraid of becoming candidates,” he says in his office decorated with posters of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a former political prisoner.

Opposition members currently hold two of the elected 84 seats in parliament. PAP holds the rest.

Chee says it really does not matter whether the opposition wins an extra seat.

What is needed, he says, is a discussion of the “fundamental issues” which he alleges include: the lack of judicial independence, an absence of press freedom, a lack of freedom of speech and assembly.

When he read his statement in court he was trying to address one of those “fundamental” issues, he says. For that, he makes no apology.

“I know that history will prove me right.”

Meanwhile in Nigeria…

Boycott shuts down Nigeria courts

14 Mar 06

Lawyers say they have shut down court proceedings across Nigeria, claiming their boycott is a complete success.

The Nigerian Bar Association says the protest is over the “failure of the government to comply with court orders and the violation of human rights”.

President Lanke Odogiyon said disregard for the rule of law was reminiscent of Nigeria under the military.

He said the only case in the capital, Abuja, was the government failing to get a court order to stop the strike.

The Bar Association says most of its 50,000 membership followed the call on the first day of the two-day boycott and stayed away.

Political battles

The Bar Association said it wanted to demonstrate what would happen if the justice system in Nigeria ceased to function.

The lawyers say national and state governments routinely ignore court orders they do not like.

“The problem of disobedience towards court orders by members of the executive arm at all tiers of government… which was prevalent during the military dictatorship, has reared its ugly head under the present democratic dispensation,” Mr Odogiyon said.

He said the problem was not just limited to disobeying court orders.

Every day, he said, defenceless citizens were shot dead by members of the security services and law enforcement agencies.

The government disputes all this and has called on Nigerian lawyers to ignore the boycott.

The BBC’s Alex Last in Lagos says the protest is a public display of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Nigeria.

He says a further concern is that political battles in Nigeria are often fought in court, and with general elections due in 2007, lawyers want to know that judgements will be obeyed.

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