Singapore detains U.S. blogger over libel commentary

New York, June 3, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the detention of blogger Gopalan Nair on charges of insulting a Singaporean judge during a high-profile libel case.

Nair, a former Singapore citizen who obtained U.S. citizenship in 2005, was arrested in a hotel on Saturday evening, according to news reports citing his lawyer. He was visiting his former home to observe proceedings in a libel case filed by Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in connection with a 2006 newspaper article, the reports said. Nair is accused of insulting the judge presiding over the trial, a charge which carries a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$3,670) or a one-year jail term, according to Agence France-Presse.

Nair will be held until a hearing on Monday, the reports said. The Web site of Singapore’s English-language Today newspaper said Judge Miranda Yeo agreed to the prosecution’s request for more time to investigate “other potential charges” against Nair.

Citing court documents, AFP said that Nair accused Judge Belinda Ang of “prostituting herself” while overseeing the defamation case. The comment was allegedly made in an e-mail sent Thursday to Ang, Singapore’s solicitor general, its attorney general, and the media, AFP reported. Nair used similar language in a commentary headlined, “Judge Belinda Ang’s Kangaroo Court,” published the same day on his blog, Singapore Dissident.

Nair, who describes himself as a lawyer and political activist, comments regularly on Singaporean political events in his blog. Singapore’s media is tightly controlled, according to CPJ research, and is kept in line in large part due to the government’s aggressive use of libel laws.
“Singapore’s detention of Gopalan Nair for public comments about such a highly politicized case is completely unwarranted,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “Freedom to criticize the judiciary is fundamental to a modern society. This case illustrates the Singapore government’s ongoing commitment to silencing opposition voices both in print and online.”

Nair was in Singapore to attend a May 26-28 hearing to determine damages owed to the Lees in a libel case sparked by a 2006 story in The New Democrat newspaper.Thedefendants had already been convicted in the case.

Defendant Chee Soon Juan, who heads the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, personally cross-examined Lee Kuan Yew about the government’s use of the libel law to silence critics. “There are various parts of this government which do not comply with Western practices, including the law of libel. But it is a system that has worked,” Lee said, according to the International Herald Tribune. Chee and his codefendant and sister Chee Siok Chin were found in contempt of court for heated exchanges during the hearing. They face 12- and 10-day jail terms respectively; financial damages to the Lees are still being considered by the judge.

In his final posting before his arrest, Nair challenged Lee Kuan Yew to act on a threat he said Lee made during the libel hearing—to sue anyone who could be identified defaming him online. “In the Singaporean sense, I have defamed him and his prime minister son, not only in my last blog post but in almost all my blog posts,” he wrote in an entry that included the address and telephone number of his hotel.

Nair had stood for elections in Singapore as a member of the Workers Party in 1988 and 1991, according to biographical information published on his Web site. He has previously been found guilty of contempt of court in Singapore for a 1991 political speech, a conviction that cost him 21,000 Singapore dollars (US$15,410) in fines and legal fees, according to Reuters.