Singapore frees jailed opposition leader

Bangkok Post
16 Dec 06

Singapore’s most vocal opposition politician was freed from prison on Saturday two weeks early after human rights groups abroad slammed the city-state for jailing critics.

A weak Chee Soon Juan, the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), made bankrupt in a libel suit early this year, was released for good behaviour from Queenstown Remand Prison.

He was jailed for five weeks on November 23 after refusing to pay a 5,000-Singapore-dollar (3,200-US) fine for speaking in public without a permit.

It was the fifth time in seven years that Chee went to prison instead of paying a fine for speaking out.

Party member Gandhi Ambalam and supporter Yap Keng Ho also chose to go to jail for shorter terms rather than fork over money for fines.

They had also addressed the same crowd as Chee on April 22 in the run-up to the general election, in which the ruling People’s Action Party took all but two of the 84 seats in parliament.

Chee’s plight prompted calls for his release from the London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch groups.

Amnesty was the latest to call on Singapore to stop using “restrictive laws and defamation suits” to silence critics. Human Rights Watch earlier described the tactics as “draconian.”

Greeted by relatives and backers, Chee said he was a “little tired” but needed to prepare for a trial on Thursday on charges of trying to leave Singapore without official approval on April 1.

Chee’s health deteriorated behind bars until he stopped eating because of nausea and vomiting, the SDP said. He was transferred to the prison section of Changi General Hospital.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, which overseas the prison, said he had a thorough medical check-up when admitted and prison authorities examined the food, finding “no reason to believe” it was the cause of his complaints.

Public gatherings of more than four people without a permit are prohibited in Singapore. Public speaking without an official license is banned.

Chee is also being sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, for allegedly defaming them.

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