Lawyers’ Groups write to Lee, Goh and Yong

January 30, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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LAWYERS COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

333 Seventh Avenue, 13th Floor
New York, New York 10001-5004
USA
Telephone (212) 845 5200
Facsimile (212) 845 5299
E-mail: [email protected] http://www.lchr.org

Washington, D.C. Office:
100 Maryland Avenue, N.E.Suite 500
Washington D.C. 20002-5625
Telephone (202) 547 5692
Facsimile (202) 543 5999
E-mail: [email protected]

January 23, 2003

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew
Senior Minister
The Istana
Republic of Singapore
Fax: (65) 6732-4627

Mr. Goh Chok Tong
Prime Minister
The Istana
Republic of Singapore
Fax: (65) 6732-4627

Mr. Yong Pung How
Chief Justice
Supreme Court
Republic of Singapore
Fax: (65) 6337-9450

Your Excellencies,

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada] is [are] gravely concerned about the defamation action currently in process against Dr. Chee Soon Juan, in which the Senior Minister and Prime Minister are plaintiffs. Various aspects of the proceeding to date suggest violations of Dr. Chees fundamental rights to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, guaranteed under international law.

As you are aware, several legal representatives were refused leave to appear on behalf of Dr. Chee at the first instance hearing in this case. Mr. Justice Lai Kew Chai ruled that Stuart Littlemore Q.C. was not a fit and proper person to appear in a Singaporean court. Judicial Commissioner Tay Yong Kwang denied leave to appear to both Martin Lee Q.C. and Henric Nicholas Q.C. on the grounds that the matter was not sufficiently complex to require the assistance of Queens Counsel and that there was insufficient evidence as to the absolute absence of available local counsel. Repeatedly refusing leave to appear to competent legal practitioners is unreasonable. In view of the fact that the Prime Minister and Senior Minister were represented by Senior Counsel, this ruling is also manifestly unfair to Dr. Chee. Furthermore, the requirement, stipulated by the High Court, that Dr. Chee post a S$10,000 bond in order to appeal these rulings is unduly prohibitive.

This proceeding against Dr. Chee has great significance for the level of respect for basic political freedoms in Singapore. This is so not simply because the claims stem from statements allegedly made by Dr. Chee in the course of national elections. A damages award could jeopardize Dr. Chees political career, if he were forced to declare himself bankrupt. In this context, it is inappropriate, and highly irregular, that the defamation order was made summarily by a Senior Assistant Registrar in closed proceedings.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights believes [and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada believe] that Dr. Chee Soon Juan has been targeted for raising political issues outside of a formal institutional setting. Defamation law in most common law jurisdictions includes a defence of qualified privilege, in recognition of the fact that the balancing exercise between the right to reputation and the right to free speech should be approached differently in the context of public political debate. Singaporean law provides for no such defence. We are deeply concerned that this hampers the ability of Singaporeans to engage in open public discourse and amounts to an effective violation of international standards governing freedom of expression and the right and duty of parliamentarians and political advocates to report on human rights violations by the state. These standards are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 1998.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has been monitoring the governments repressive treatment of Dr. Chee. On November 4, 2002 we [the Lawyers Committee] wrote to Professor S. Jayakumar, expressing our concerns about Dr. Chees imprisonment, and received a response from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated November 26, 2002. Dr. Chee has faced prosecution for selling his political writings without a permit. Last year, he was prohibited from seeking election to parliament for five years for flouting a ban on openly debating religious issues. He has been jailed three times, most recently in October 2002 for five weeks for holding a peaceful May Day rally in support of basic human rights without a government permit. His application for this permit had been rejected on the unsupported basis that the gathering posed a potential threat to law and order. These application procedures seem arbitrary and lacking in transparency and represent an illegitimate restriction on Dr. Chees rights to freedom of speech and assembly, which are enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution of Singapore. This background suggests that the present defamation action was brought for the impermissible collateral purpose of silencing Dr. Chee, especially during his election campaign.

At a time of declining economic growth, Singapore should be particularly attentive to its human rights record to bolster the confidence of foreign investors and governments. Restrictions on public debate on issues of social justice and minimum labor standards are having an adverse impact on the quality of Singapores industrial output. As well as being anathema to democratic values, the Singaporean governments policies in suppressing public debate and civil society act as a disincentive for foreign investors, whereas strong independent trade unions and workers rights organizations contribute to economic growth. By disregarding or downgrading democratic freedoms of speech, association and assembly, the Singaporean government risks undermining its economic position in the region.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights intends [and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada intend] to send an international observer [international observers] to Dr. Chees appeal, scheduled for February 7, 2003, to assess the fairness of this proceeding and its outcome. We note that Dr. Chee will again be appearing without legal assistance on this occasion. We look forward to hearing from you concerning this case. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Neil Hicks
Director, Human Rights Defenders Project

cc: His Excellency Frank Lavin
Ambassador of the United States to Singapore
Embassy of the United States of America
Fax: 011 65 6476-9040

Board of Directors:
Chair, William D. ZabelPresident
Tom A. Bernstein
M. Bernard Aidinoff
Joseph L. Brand
Raymond M. Brown
Lynda Clarizio
Craig Cogut
Mitchell F. Dolin
Donald Francis Donovan
A. Whitney Ellsworth
Kenneth R. Feinberg
R. Scott Greathead
Martina A. Hone
Robert D. Joffe
Lewis B. Kaden
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo
Harold Hongju Koh
Philip A. Lacovara
Jo Backer Laird
Li Lu
R. Todd Lang
Barbara A. Schatz
Steven R. Shapiro
George Vradenburg III
Sigourney Weaver

Executive Director, Michael Posner
National Council Chair, Talbot DAlemberte
Washington, D.C. Council Chair, Daryl Libow