LAWYERS RIGHTS WATCH CANADA (LRWC)
02 Dec 06
Singapore: Prominent human rights advocate imprisoned for speaking in public
Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada expresses grave concern at the November 23 2006 imprisonment of Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan for speaking in a public place. Dr. Chee is the outspoken Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), that has tenaciously opposed the Singapore government and publicly criticized the government’s limitations on basic freedoms. For almost five decades, Singapore has been under the control of the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Dr. Chee was imprisoned after refusing to pay the fine of S$5,000 for speaking public on April 22, prior to Singapore’s latest general election. He and other members of the SDP were speaking to passing citizens in the course of selling the party newspaper on the street.
The current sentence is five weeks in prison. Two of Dr. Chee’s SDP colleagues, Gandhi Ambalam and Yap Keng Ho, were sentenced to shorter incarceration terms. All three had initially received heavy fines but have now been jailed by the Singapore Subordinate Court due to their refusal to pay. Recent reports indicate a deterioration in Dr. Chee’s health as a result of imprisonment.
Dr. Chee determined not to pay the fine as a matter of principle. In a statement read in court on November 23, 2006, he exhorted the judiciary to recognize the “difference in punishing someone who has committed a crime versus punishing someone who is fighting for democracy and the rights of the people.” Dr. Chee pointed out that criminal punishment is typically meant to either deter or rehabilitate the offender. Imprisoning Dr. Chee for pursuing his peaceful campaign for democracy will not serve either purpose. As he put it, “What will punishing me achieve? Do you think it will rehabilitate me and deter me from doing what I am doing?”
Prior to his imprisonment, Dr. Chee recorded a video message addressed to his fellow Singaporeans. “The truth of the matter is that, without the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, there is little we can do to hold the PAP accountable for its actions.”
Background respecting Chee Soon Juan
As an internationally-recognized human rights defender, Dr. Chee has long been the target of persecution from the Singapore government. His political career exposes the government’s unrelenting harassment of those who would speak out against its policies.
The Singapore government and judiciary has already imprisoned Dr. Chee several times for peaceful activism. His previously-flourishing academic career as a university lecturer has been ruined through his dismissal from the National University of Singapore for alleged misuse of funds and defamation of his department head, a PAP MP. As a result of public statements he made in the course of the 2001 election campaign, Dr. Chee was earlier this year declared a bankrupt for failure to pay S$500,000 damages awarded in a civil defamation suit brought by two PAP former Prime Ministers, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew. During Dr. Chee’s trial leading up to this penalty, Lord Alderdice, President of the Liberal International and peer of the British House of Lords, and Sam Rainsy, MP, leader of the Cambodian opposition, voiced international concern regarding Dr. Chee’s situation. As Lord Alderdice stated:
This policy [abuse of the courts to quell legitimate freedom of speech and criticism of the Government], which has also affected other opposition politicians in Singapore and prevented them from communicating actively with colleagues, is intended to intimidate into silence all criticism of an increasingly authoritarian government. Dr Chee has not even been allowed his own choice of lawyer and was not permitted to use the services of Mr Martin Lee QC, an internationally recognized legal authority.
The Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) and World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA) have both strongly condemned the jail sentence passed on Dr. Chee.
Singapore’s application of penal measures undermines the rule of law
Singapore’s Public Entertainment and Meeting Act (PEMA) requires police permission for public events involving more than five people. The law undermines the spirit of section 14 of the Singaporean Constitution, which guarantees Singaporeans freedom of speech, association and assembly. Moreover, it is fundamentally out of step with international standards and incongruent with the Singapore government’s attempts to market itself as an open and democratic society.
Lawyers Rights Watch Canada denounces the selective use of the PEMA to target opposition politicians. Individuals politically opposed to the PAP who seek permits for public speech often report that permission is denied or delayed until the last minute, effectively preventing legitimate public discussion and dissent. The government seizes upon minor violations of the PEMA by opposition leaders and aggressively prosecutes. This uneven application of the law amounts to a further abuse of power and undercuts the most basic premise of a free society that all persons are equal before and under the law.
The PEMA is only one of many laws the PAP uses to bar Singaporean access to basic internationally-recognized political and civil rights. On November 6, 2006, a judge ordered Yap Keng Ho, another member of the SDP, to remove from his blog a video of himself speaking in public during general elections earlier this year. Mr. Yap has been charged with speaking in public without a permit. During the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank held in Singapore in September 2006, authorities banned outdoor protests and barred some representatives of non-governmental organizations from entering the country. Most recently, proposed amendments to the Singapore Penal Code seek to criminalize and further restrict freedom of speech.
Lawyers Rights Watch Canada strongly condemns this subversion of the rule of law and continued persecution of Chee Soon Juan.
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