Critics of Singapore’s judiciary face reprisal

New York, September 19, 2008–A court in Singapore sentenced a blogger to three months in jail on Thursday, one week after the nation’s attorney general sought contempt proceedings against The Wall Street Journal Asia. Both actions come in response to critical analysis of Singapore’s judiciary in connection with a prominent defamation suit.

Blogger Gopalan Nair, a former Singapore citizen who obtained U.S. citizenship in 2005, had accused a high court judge of “prostituting herself” during a hearing to assess damages in a successful defamation suit filed by the ruling Lee family against an opposition newspaper, according to local and international news reports. Police had detained Nair for six days in May after he published the comments on his Web site Singapore Dissident, having traveled to Singapore to observe the three-day hearing. Nair, who plans to appeal the verdict, must begin serving the sentence on Saturday, the Straits Times said.

In a separate case, Singapore’s attorney general is seeking contempt proceedings against the publisher and two editors of the Dow Jones-owned Wall Street Journal‘s Asian edition for two editorials and a letter that allegedly impugned the “impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore judiciary,” according to the Web site of the attorney general’s office. One of the editorials, “Democracy in Singapore,” published June 26, concerned comments made in the same defamation hearing Nair attended.

“Open discussion of the issues raised by this prominent defamation case is a part of a fair judicial process, and should not lead to further punitive measures,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Online commentators like Nair should not have to serve time for criticizing the authorities, even in harsh terms.”

The May defamation hearing attracted widespread attention because it pitted Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader known as Singapore’s minister mentor, against defendant Chee Soon Juan, who heads the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. The rivals squared off in court over the government’s frequent use of libel charges against critics. “When the subject turned to the moral underpinnings of democracy–freedoms of speech, assembly and association–the debate went game, set, and match to Mr. Chee,” the June 26 editorial in the Journal read. The editorial also described Nair’s detention.

A letter by Chee, published by the Journal, and a second editorial citing an International Bar Association Human Rights Institute report on human rights in Singapore are also cited in an application to court to proceed with the contempt charge. A hearing will be set if the attorney general’s application is accepted by the court, the Journal said. In a statement posted on its Web site, the attorney general’s office said it will seek “appropriate sanctions.”

“The dialogue took place in a courtroom and is therefore privileged–which means we can report on it without risking a lawsuit, which Mr. Lee often files against critics,” the newspaper’s June 26 editorial.