Opposition leader faces prison for conviction violating free speech rights
Chee faces a prison term of 20 weeks starting February 10 if he cannot pay fines of S$20,000 (US$15,720) for "making an address in a public place without a license," which was upheld by an appeals' court on January 20. Human Rights Watch said that the convictions violated Chee's rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
"The Singaporean government is once again abusing the justice system and trampling on basic rights to remove an opposition politician from the political playing field," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should end this persecution of Dr. Chee and show that free speech is not a dead letter in Singapore."
Chee, 48, is the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). He was convicted four times, in each case for speaking in a public area with street vendors for four to five minutes about upcoming elections ultimately held in May 2006. He spoke to crowds that observers estimated ranged up to 40 or 50 people. In each instance, Chee encouraged people to purchase copies of "The New Democrat", the party newspaper, as a way to support his party. The courts convicted Chee of violating the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA), which provides that "any person who provides . . . any public entertainment without a license under this Act, shall be guilty of an offense and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000."
Chee is currently prohibited under the Singaporean constitution from serving in Parliament. Section 45 of Singapore's constitution states that anyone who "has been convicted of an offence by a court of law in Singapore . . . and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or to a fine of not less than $2,000 and has not received a free pardon" is not qualified to be a member of parliament. Political observers believe that national elections for parliament will be held in the first half of 2011.
For years the government has relied on repressive laws to jail and bankrupt Chee. Between 1999 and 2006, Chee was arrested four other times for violating Singapore's laws restricting public speech and assembly. In November 2006, he chose imprisonment rather than pay a S$5,000 fine.
In 2002, senior leaders Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong sued Chee for remarks he allegedly made regarding a loan to Indonesian President Suharto. In February 2006, after Chee failed to pay the S$500,000 (US$393,000) in court-awarded damages, he was declared bankrupt, which prohibited him from running in the 2006 elections and from leaving the country.
Other members of the SDP have also been fined and jailed, many repeatedly, for speaking without a permit or for peacefully demonstrating.
Singapore's human rights record will undergo international scrutiny in May in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Singapore's violations over many years of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should be prominently raised by governments commenting on Singapore's human rights record, Human Rights Watch said.
"If the penalties were not so severe, it would be laughable that a so-called 'democratic' government would actually lock up someone for giving a speech on a sidewalk and encouraging people to buy their party's broadsheet," Robertson said. "The governments reviewing Singapore's record at the Human Rights Council should highlight cases where Singapore's oppressive laws make peaceful speech a criminal offense."