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UN rights body urged to press for fundamental freedoms

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Geneva, May 4, 2011 - United Nations member states should denounce Singapore's severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly during the country's first-ever Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Human Rights Watch said today. The review, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, is scheduled for May 6, 2011.

With Singapore's national elections on May 7, Singaporean citizens should demand that candidates seeking their vote publicly support rescinding laws and practices that violate fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged UN member states to reject Singapore's claims of "specific national circumstances" that negate the universality and indivisibility of human rights, as set out in the government's national report for the UPR.

"Singapore claims exceptionalism as a way to dismiss international criticism of laws and practices that block meaningful access to free speech, association, and assembly," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Such appeals run contrary to the universality of human rights and mask Singapore's long-established pattern of civil and political rights abuses."

Human Rights Watch, in its UPR submission, highlighted areas where Singapore's rhetoric has not matched the reality of a rights record in accord with international standards and has outlined recommendations for improvement. They include:

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Assembly

Singapore's rules governing the formation and activities of political parties and political organizations impede airing of opposition viewpoints. To comply with international human rights standards for freedom of association and assembly, Human Rights Watch urges revision of the 2009 Public Order Act, which requires a permit for "any cause-related activity," defined as a show of support by one or more persons for or against a position, person, group, or government. Influential online media such as The Online Citizen are forced to register as "political societies," restricting their ability to raise funds and to retain their reporting flexibility. The Speaker's Corner, the only outdoor space in Singapore where speakers and demonstrators are not required to have permits, was declared off-limits for all activities as soon as the general election was announced on April 19.

Peaceful critics of government leaders are targeted in government-initiated criminal defamation cases that result in prison terms and monetary fines severe enough to trigger bankruptcy. Although it has been 47 years since Singapore last experienced communal violence linked to ethnic identity, the government has continued to use this rationale to deny free expression on matters of race or religion, to refuse the right to public assembly without police permission, which is rarely granted except in very limited areas, and to maintain draconian restrictions on publishing and the media.

The government decision to prosecute Alan Shadrake, a British journalist who authored "Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock", exemplifies its willingness to silence accusers rather than tolerate criticism. In November 2010, Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison and a SGD 20,000 (US$16,260) fine on contempt of court charges for "scandalizing the judiciary." He had alleged that court decisions in capital cases, which mandate execution for murder, treason, and some 20 drug-related offenses, were influenced by political and economic pressures, biases against the "weak," "poor," and "uneducated," and interference by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). The government prosecutor argued that Shadrake's insinuations and allegations "muzzle confidence in the courts' impartiality, integrity, and independence." At Shadrake's appeal in April, the prosecutor contended that Shadrake had "transgressed" the limits of free speech and fair criticism and had "maligned the entire judiciary," thus endangering public confidence in the judiciary. The Court of Appeal has yet to issue a ruling.

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To read the full press release, click here

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