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Singapore releases teen blogger jailed for criticising the late Lee Kuan Yew online

Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves with his parents after his sentencing from the State Court in Singapore on 6 July 2015
Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves with his parents after his sentencing from the State Court in Singapore on 6 July 2015

REUTERS/Edgar Su

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 6 July 2015.

The release this week of 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee is long overdue in Singapore, a country where such blatant free expression violations have had damaging consequences for the health of democracy, PEN American Center said in a statement today.

Four days after the death of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015, Yee posted a YouTube video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead!” in which he irreverently criticized Lee and his policies. After a slew of police reports, Yee was arrested on March 29 on charges of intent to "wound religious feelings" by unfavorably comparing Lee Kuan Yew and his supporters to Jesus and Christians.

Authorities also leveled an obscenity charge against Yee for posting a caricature on his blog depicting Prime Minister Lee engaging in a sexual act with Margaret Thatcher.

Yee was convicted in May, despite Singapore's own constitution that includes the right to free expression for all citizens (Article 14) and its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees freedom of expression for minors. Both documents are, however, subject to lengthy and overreaching exceptions including "to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offense."

Yee was released on Monday, July 6, after the court ruled that he had already served his four week sentence.

“The criminal charges leveled against Amos Yee are a staggeringly disproportionate punishment, especially for a child,” said Karin Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center. “Yee has faced unnecessary physical, emotional, and mental harm as a result of his unjust detention. PEN supports Yee's efforts towards appealing the conviction, and urges the government of Singapore to uphold the fundmental human rights to free expression which democracy is founded.”

The New York Times reports that Yee spent more than 50 days in detention. While the prosecutors have since dropped their call for "reformative training," Yee had previously faced up to 18-months of foot drills, counselling, and education reportedly reserved as an option for violent juveniles or serious criminals. Yee also underwent psychiatric evaluation at the Institute of Mental Health to assess his suitability for a Mandatory Treatment Order. During this time, Yee's Facebook page was continually updated with what appeared to be accounts of his detention. Reports of mental stress, assault, hospitalization, and threats of rape led many to worry about Yee's personal safety.

Singapore's government has a history of suppressing free speech. Freedom House reports that all domestic outlets for news are owned by government-linked companies and self-censorship is common. Harsh laws are used regularly to prosecute journalists and writers who criticize political leaders or the judiciary, and authorities monitor online content.

"The restrictive legal environment in Singapore chills speech and discourages citizens from expressing their views," said Karlekar. "In Yee's own words 'a just law would never have charged me for these crimes.'"

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