Dow Jones Newswires
17 Mar 06
An outspoken critic of the Singapore government was jailed and fined Friday for contempt of court after questioning the independence of the city-state’s judges.
High Court Justice Lai Siu Chiu sentenced Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democrat Party, to one day in jail and fined him S$6,000 or seven days jail if he doesn’t pay the fine.
Chee, who was bankrupted in February after failing to pay former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong some S$500,000 in libel damages, told Dow Jones Newswires he wouldn’t pay the fine.
Chee alleged at his bankruptcy hearing on Feb. 10 that Singapore’s judges lacked independence, especially in cases involving opposition politicians. He also distributed the statement read in court to the media.
Chee’s statement “imputed that Judges were controlled by the government and were liable to be removed from the bench if they were perceived to be lenient toward opposition politicians,” Singapore’s Attorney-General said in a court document.
“This is probably one of the worst cases that has come before the court for scandalizing the judiciary,” said Justice Lai when sentencing Chee.
Chee and his counsel, high profile human rights lawyer M. Ravi, were applauded by supporters in the public gallery after the sentencing.
The International Commission of Jurists, a nongovernmental organization, said it observed the court case for compliance with international fair trial standards. The ICJ will release a report in a week.
After Thursday’s emotionally-charged hearing, during which Chee broke down in tears, Friday’s sentencing was punctuated by feisty exchanges between Ravi and Justice Lai.
“Your honor, you can do what you want,” said Ravi after Justice Lai warned he would be cited for contempt.
Ravi’s defense of Chee, a former lecturer in neuropsychology, was partly based on the contention that the opposition politician’s statements were fair comment.
The lawyer pointed to criticisms of Singapore’s legal system by the ICJ, Amnesty International and former Singapore Solicitor-General Francis Seow.
Acting for the attorney-general, second Solicitor-General Lee Sieu Kin said Chee’s attacks on the judiciary were full of untruths and half truths and “are of a degree never seen in cases of scandalizing the court.”
Ravi told reporters the case “pulls the judiciary back to the Middle Ages” as it shows the courts have no tolerance for criticism.
Chee isn’t paying the fine as an issue of principle but also doesn’t have the money to pay it, Ravi said.
The defamation suit which bankrupted Chee stemmed from comments he made during the 2001 election campaign.
Leaders of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, have successfully sued opponents for defamation many times.
International human rights and lawyers groups have criticized the tactic, but Singapore’s rulers say that legal action is the best way to protect their reputations.
Being bankrupt, Chee was unable to stand in elections. He was already barred from contesting elections for five years after being fined in 2002 for making a speech in public without a license.
The SDP doesn’t have a seat in Singapore’s Parliament.
Chee, a longtime critic of the PAP, was sacked from his teaching job at the National University of Singapore in 1993 after he joined the opposition.
He contested his dismissal, which followed allegations of dishonest behavior, and was sued by university officials for defamation, paying out S$300,000.