Singapore Update: Dissidents Go Directly to Jail

As expected, Singaporean Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, said Wednesday that they would go to jail for contempt of court because they could not afford an appeal of the sentence, which probably would have been futile anyway.

Chee Siok Chin told Agence France Presse by telephone that “We didn't want to delay the matter anymore. We thought we should start serving the sentence."

The two were sentenced for having “scandalized the court” and “obstructed the administration of justice” during a contentious three-day hearing to decide on damages to be awarded to the ruling Lee family for having libeled Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

During the cross-examination phase of the hearing, Chee called former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew a “pitiable figure” and Lee described Chee as a “near psychopath.” Chee Siok Chin, Chee’s sister, also a senior SDP member, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for the same offenses. Both are free while they appeal the sentence.

Supreme Court Justice Belinda Ang charged Chee Soon Juan with contempt for accusing the court of being biased and of having prejudged the hearing, as well as not obeying her orders to stop particular lines of questioning.

Chee, the secretary general of the SDP, and his sister were found in an earlier hearing to have defamed Lee, the former Prime Minister and his son in a 2006 article in their party newspaper, the new Democrat.

This is the seventh time Chee has been sent to jail in Singapore, four for speaking in public without a permit, once for attempting to leave the country without a permit after being invited to a conference in Istanbul for the World Movement for Democracy's Fourth Assembly in April 2006, and once before for “scandalizing the judiciary.”

He and his sister were unable to pay their fine because he has also been driven into bankruptcy by repeated lawsuits by government leaders. In 1993, after the SDP leader, a neuropsychologist, joined the SDP and contested a local election, his position with the National University of Singapore was terminated, allegedly for misappropriation of research funds. Chee later staged a hunger strike, saying the charges were fabricated. He didn’t get his position back.

Last week, in an unusual step for a Singapore court, Chee was allowed by the court to cross-examine both the elder Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. However, the cross examination by Chee and his lawyer turned into a free-for-all, with Ang repeatedly ruling Chee’s questions out of order or irrelevant. Chee continued to assert his innocence on all charges, telling the court that “At no point was there a deliberate attempt to do anything that would scandalise the court." According to local media, he added that "There were many political arguments made and in the heat of the battle, Mr. Lee said some things and I said some things. It was in this context that some things were said and done."

The state prosecutor had asked Ang to deliver a “substantial fine” to act as a deterrent for other “like-minded” individuals.

Chee Soon Joon and Yap Keng Ho, another party official, are also free on appeal after having been sentenced to five weeks in prison or to pay a S$5,000 (US$3,671) fine last Wednesday in the court of District Court Judge Jasvender Kaur. The two were sentenced for speaking in public without a permit during elections in April 2006. Chee pleaded not guilty, claiming he had a constitutional right to free speech.

Authorities require a police permit if more than five people seek to assemble outdoors in Singapore. Offences under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act could lead to fines as high as S$10,000. Singapore has been under widespread criticism by press groups and human rights organizations for decades for what they term political repression and restrictions against free speech. The Lee family have repeatedly sued both local politicians and the international press for defamation on a wide variety of fronts, and so far have never lost a case in Singapore.