Singapore activists stage rare pro-democracy march

11 Dec 06

Around a dozen Singaporean campaigners on Sunday managed to take a pro-democracy protest to the streets for the first time in years, attracting plainclothes police with video cameras as they demanded freedom of speech.

The activists walked to the Queenstown Remand Prison where Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), is serving a five-week term for illegally speaking in public before elections in May.

“Today, we want to celebrate whatever little freedom we have,” spokesman John Tan told reporters before the start of the march, timed to mark International Human Rights Day.

The campaigners walked in groups of four as Singapore bans public gatherings of more than four people without a police permit. Public speaking is also prohibited unless the speaker has been licensed by the government.

In September, Chee’s attempt to stage a pro-democracy march to the venue of the IMF-World Bank annual meeting in Singapore grabbed world headlines after police physically blocked him and fellow activists in a four-day standoff at the city-state’s little-used Speakers’ Corner.

On Sunday, authorities did not try to stop the march, but police in plain clothes trailed the group and filmed them with video cameras. The 9-km (5-mile) march started at Speakers’ Corner and passed through Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping belt.

Some of the activists – who included Chee’s wife Huang Chih Mei and their three young children — wore yellow t-shirts carrying “Free to Speak” and “Free to Gather” messages. They were generally unheeded by the Christmas shopping crowd.

Chee’s sister, Chee Siok Chin, stopped at the office of President S R Nathan and asked an official to hand a flier to the president, to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and to his father, Lee Kuan Yew.

Chee, who has been bankrupted by libel suits brought by officials whom he criticised, was jailed after failing to pay a S$5,000 fine ($3,250) for speaking in public.

He has been jailed several times in recent years for similar offences and for questioning the independence of the judiciary.

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