City state locks horns with rights group over detentions

October 29, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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South China Morning Post

The Singapore government has clashed with human rights group Amnesty International over the government’s tough laws on free speech and assembly.

The war of words came after last week’s detention of two opposition activists, who were jailed after refusing to pay fines for trying to hold a rally without an official permit.

Wendy Woo, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Home Affairs, said yesterday: “There are many other Singaporeans who regularly criticise the government but they respect the law.”

Ms Woo added that one of the pair – Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) executive committee member Gandhi Ambalam – had been released after just one night in prison.

Mr Ambalam had settled his fines of S$3000 (HK$13,300) and was not required to serve the remainder of his four-week sentence, she said.

That leaves SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan to complete his five-week sentence, which was imposed after he refused to pay fines totalling S$4500.

On May 1, the men were arrested as they tried to hold a workers’ rights rally despite being denied a permit for the event. All public meetings in Singapore require police permission.

“When convicted by the court, they both chose to go to prison because they refused to pay the fines imposed,” Ms Woo said.

Amnesty International on Thursday issued a scathing attack on Singapore, saying that the twin detentions “typify a pattern of unreasonable restriction on public gatherings and on the free expression of opinion”.

“This is not a simple procedural dispute, but an unusual display of protest against the restrictive laws which deter the expression of dissenting views and encourage a climate of self-censorship,” said Margaret John, co-ordinator for Singapore and Malaysia in Amnesty’s Canadian section.

Chee served two jail sentences in 1999 after he refused to pay fines imposed for speaking in public without a licence.