Fremont blogger held in Singapore

Patrick May
Mercury News

He Criticized Judge in Activist’s Case

In his blog, “Singapore Dissident,” Gopalan Nair describes himself this way:

“Determined to find the Truth.”

Those words may have come back to haunt the Fremont lawyer, now being held in his native Singapore for using his blog to criticize a judge. Nair, a longtime opposition activist before leaving Singapore for California in 1991, accused Judge Belinda Ang of “prostituting herself” during the defamation trial of another opposition activist. He said by telephone last week that he was merely expressing the free speech allowed under the city-state’s constitution.

Singapore has been controlled for five decades by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party, accused by human-rights groups of repressive laws and suppression of political dissent. Nair had gone there last month to blog and monitor the case of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, on trial for allegedly defaming Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Shortly after his May 29 blog post, Nair was arrested when he got off the elevator of the Broadway Hotel. His case since has become something of a cause celebre in the country’s burgeoning anti-government online chatter.

“I made it clear on my blog that the judge was biased and had prostituted herself by acting as if she were an employee of Lee,” said Nair, unable to leave the country since police confiscated his passport. “I didn’t mean she was a prostitute, but in her actions she was abusing her authority.

That’s the correct use of prostituting oneself, right?”

Running out of money and worrying about a law practice sputtering in his absence, the divorced father of three said he’s getting desperate. Nair, 58, said he spent five days in solitary confinement, sleeping on a cold cement floor with only a plastic sheet before he was released.

Afraid that his phone calls are being monitored and staying at an undisclosed location with friends, Nair said he is required to report every morning to the local police for further “interrogation” as authorities sort out the charges.

A representative of the U.S. Embassy said Thursday that consular officers have visited Nair several times and have discussed his case with both the Singapore government and its ambassador in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve monitoring the case very closely,” the representative said. “Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we believe an individual should be able to peacefully exercise fundamental human rights, especially freedom of expression, regardless of frontiers.”

The Embassy representative described U.S.-Singapore relations as “generally very healthy. They’re not an ally, but we consider them a close partner.”

The Singapore prime minster’s office did not return telephone and e-mail requests for comment on the case.

Nair’s next appearance in court is July 14. He faces fines of about $7,000 and up to two years in jail for the blog charge of “insulting a public servant in a judicial proceeding” and a second charge of allegedly sending an insulting e-mail to a different judge in 2006. Nair denies sending it.

Margaret John, an Amnesty International coordinator who has been monitoring human rights in Singapore for years, said “free expression in Singapore is very tightly restricted, and anyone who steps out of line, be they American, Singaporese or anyone else, is likely to suffer because of it.”

John said the government has a history of going after dissidents with defamation suits, driving government opponents into bankruptcy for speaking out. With the local media either controlled by the government or self-censured by intimidated journalists, John said, Nair’s arrest was the latest example of a government increasingly targeting dissents in the blogosphere.

“Dissidents are increasingly turning to Internet newsletters as an alternative to news they see in the government-controlled media,” John said. “So the Internet is now seen as a threat to the government.”

Nair has posted several blogs at since his release from jail on June 5, providing a blow-by-blow account of his daily visits with investigators.

Thursday, however, his blogging mood seemed to lighten.

“Since I am going to be here for the foreseeable future, and there is nothing that I can do to change it, I might as well make the best of it,” Nair wrote. Describing his sailing prowess during his days at the “Changi Sailing Club” on Singapore’s northeastern shore, Nair asked to borrow a sailboat – no crew necessary.

“So if there is a dinghy sailor out there who reads this and has a boat,” said Nair, now basically under house arrest, “I would love to borrow it.”

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