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CAPSULE REPORT: International Bar Association gives Singapore dismal grade in free expression, human rights, independence of courts

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is an 11 July 2008 SEAPA statement:

International Bar Association gives Singapore dismal grade in free expression, human rights, independence of courts

The International Bar Association's (IBA) Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) on 8 July 2008 released a study assailing the Singaporean government on its human rights standards and records and underscoring the city-state's severe "limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press, and of the independence of the judiciary".

The report, titled "Prosperity Versus Individual Rights? Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Singapore", concludes that "democratic debate and media comment are extremely restricted in Singapore and government officials have initiated numerous successful defamation suits against both political and media critics."

The Singaporean courts are notorious for slapping staggering penalties on media organisations, journalists and oppositionists found guilty of defaming Singapore's leaders, and the IBAHRI report suggests that a judiciary vulnerable to executive influence is largely to blame for the fact, as well as the chilling effect it brings to Singaporean society. "There are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and independence" in cases involving "the interests of People's Action Party (PAP) members or their associates", the report says. PAP's leaders - headlined by past and current prime ministers, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, former PM Goh Chok Tong and current PM Lee Hsien Loong - over the decades have won apologies and millions of dollars in penalties from defamation suits targeting oppositionists and international media organisations such as the "Asian Wall Street Journal", the "Far Eastern Economic Review", "Time", "Newsweek", "Asiaweek", the "International Herald Tribune" and "The Economist". The leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Dr. Chee Soon Juan, and his sister, Siok Chin, have been bankrupted by the courts for their inability to pay the hefty fines brought upon them by defamation suits filed by the Lees.

The IBA represents 30,000 lawyers worldwide, and ironically held its annual convention in Singapore in October 2007. The IBA says its investigations for the report began prior to that conference and continued as "strong debate between the government and its critics took place during the IBA's inaugural Rule of Law Day."

Emilio Cárdenas, co-chair of the IBAHRI, said the institute had "sought the views of all the major stakeholders concerned, including the Singapore government and the Singapore Law Society." The organisation's 72-page report says Singapore's human rights and free expression record "failed to meet international standards", raising "concerns about the independence of its judiciary".

Singapore's rules and the jurisprudence on cases brought against critics of government and leaders of the ruling PAP creates a restrictive environment for free expression, free assembly and the political activities of oppositionists, the IBAHRI concludes.

Among other key recommendations, the IBAHRI said Singapore should ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ease restrictions on the media and carry out reforms in the judiciary to ensure that its courts are free from government influence, particularly in cases involving leading political figures.

IBA's statement is available at:

For further information on the Chee Soon Juan and Siok Chin cases, see:

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