A local TV news van pulled up this week outside the building where Gopalan Nair runs his immigration law firm, and a cameraman came out to film the entrance.
The static image of a sign out front listing business names might seem an oblique way to illustrate the story of a detained U.S. citizen. But it does underscore the absence of the man himself, stuck in legal limbo as a libel case looms against him next month in Singapore.
“No charge has been formally tendered in court, and to date no plea has been taken from me,” said Nair, whose passport was confiscated in the island nation after he criticized the government online. “The police are constantly requiring me to attend interrogation sessions.”
The Fremont lawyer traveled to his native Singapore last month to observe the defamation trial of some opposition political leaders. While there, he criticized the judge on his blog for “prostituting herself” for the government.
Nair was arrested and held in solitary confinement for days. His passport was confiscated, and he awaits a court appearance July 14. He also is accused of calling another judge “corrupt” two years ago in another e-mail.
He said the case against him could lead to fines of about $7,000 and up to two years in jail for his blog comments, which are garnering sympathy in the free-spirited blogosphere.
Margaret John, an Amnesty International coordinator who has monitored human rights in Singapore, said the government has a history of going after dissidents by using defamation suits and driving opponents into bankruptcy for speaking out.
With print journalists wary of making waves in a nation that denies free speech, she said Nair’s arrest is the latest example of a government that has turned to targeting Web reporters.
“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.”
On his blog, Nair described the situation by comparing Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe, who recently thwarted an election that favored an opponent, with Singapore’s ruling family patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew.
“Mugabe uses guns to stay in power,” Nair said. “Lee uses the courts.”
Although the U.S. Embassy has been supportive, Nair said representatives “naturally said that they cannot directly intervene in this matter since it is a matter of Singaporean laws and domestic affairs.”
When the charges do officially move forward, he said, “Of course I intend to plead not guilty.”
Argus staff writer Todd R. Brown and Mercury News staff writer Patrick May reported this story.