On February 7, 2006 in Singapore well-known political opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan is appealing a summary judgment which highlights many issues of concern to Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) and the US based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR).
Vancouver lawyer Howard Rubin Lawyers Rights Watch Canada representative traveled to Singapore to monitor the appeal in Singapore¡¯s High Court. The U.S. based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) sent Australian lawyer Laurie Berg.
Summary judgment was awarded August 2002 to the plaintiffs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in the two cases under appeal. The two civil defamation suit summary judgments under appeal are:
- Lee Kuan Yew vs Chee Soon Juan case No. 1459 of 2001/E, and
- Goh Chok Tong vs Chee Soon Juan case No. 1460 of 2001/X)
The plaintiffs are the former and current Prime Ministers of Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew is now Senior Minister).
These two libel suits appeared to be further examples of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) use of civil defamation suits and other legal proceedings to curtail discussion of issues of public interest and to effectively prevent opposition by punishing critics. Similar libel suits against other governments critics have resulted in arbitrarily large damage awards and have had a chilling effect on both freedom of expression and the right to legal representation in Singapore. Singapore lawyers have become unwilling to jeopardize themselves by representing litigants in cases that are brought by PAP members or are otherwise politically sensitive.
The defamation suits against Dr. Chee were based on statements alleged to have been made by him during the 2001-election campaign when questioning the propriety of a US$10 billion loan to the Suharto government in 1997. Concerns arose in part because of the opacity surrounding the transaction. Suharto himself disclosed the pledge publicly. Dr. Chee tried to create public awareness of this issue.
Dr. Chee, a neuropsychologist was unrepresented when the Senior Assistant Registrar, proceeding summarily in Chambers, awarded judgment against him in both of the above noted cases. Dr. Chee was not able to find a Singapore lawyer competent and willing to represent him, and his applications for leave to be represented by foreign lawyers were dismissed: Stuart Littlemore, senior Australian Queen¡¯s Counsel, who authored a report critical of the use of libel suits in Singapore, was judged by the High Court to be “not a fit person” to appear in a Singapore court and both Martin Lee, Hong Kong senior counsel, and Henric Nicholas, Australian Queen¡¯s Counsel, were rejected by the High Court on the grounds that the cases against Chee were not sufficiently complex to require representation by foreign Q.C.¡¯s. The High Court of Singapore then required Dr. Chee to post a S$10,000 bond in order to appeal these rulings.
Dr. Chee¡¯s rights to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards were further constrained by the strict regulations that are enforced under Singapore’s Public Entertainments and Meetings Act of 1959. Dr. Chee’s most recent imprisonment in May 2002 of five weeks was a result of his refusal to pay a fine of $2,540 US for holding a public event without obtaining a police permit, which is an offense under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act. This Act requires police permission for public events.
Dr. Chee has been jailed on several occasions as a result of publicly advocating democratic values, better conditions for workers and basic human rights and has been an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
LRWC is concerned that libel suits and other proceedings against Dr. Chee appear to unreasonably restrict his rights including his right to expression. In the determination of these suits, Dr. Chee was denied the legal representation to which he was entitled under international law binding on Singapore.
LRWC is concerned with the resulting effective violations of international standards regarding rights to:
1. freedom of expression,
2. peacefully advocate against human rights violations by the state without interference, harassment or reprisal,
3. participate in governance and to receive, distribute and debate information regarding issues of public concern and the performance of public officials without the risk of civil or criminal penalties.
4. legal representation to enforce human rights or to obtain remedies for human rights violations
5. peaceful assembly
LRWC has also expressed concern, in reference to J.B. Jeyaretnam, that defamation proceedings against government¡¯s critics has impaired the right of Singaporeans to fully engage in professions that carry with them the duty or responsibility to be critical of government. This affects lawyers, parliamentarians, journalists, human rights defenders and all who depend on their services. Under Singapore law the crippling judgments from defamation suits can and do lead to bankruptcy proceedings. A bankrupt is barred from practicing law, sitting in Parliament and from traveling outside Singapore without permission.
J.B. Jeyaretnam¡¯s 20-year career as a member of parliament and his 42-year career as a lawyer ended on July 23, 2001 when the Singapore Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed his appeal from bankruptcy proceedings arising from defamation actions brought by Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP members. The Interparliamentary Union in March 2002 passed a resolution sharply critical of the Singapore government¡¯s use of civil defamation proceedings Jeyaretnam.
Update – March 20, 2006
On 17 March 2006 Dr. Chee Soon Juan was sentenced to one day in jail and another week for failing to pay a S$6,000 fine the same day of his sentencing. Presiding judge, Justice Lai Siu Chiu ruled that Dr. Chee was in contempt of court for making statements about the Singapore judiciary on February 10, during his bankruptcy hearing. Dr. Chee read a statement at the bankruptcy hearing which alleged that the judiciary was biased and served to further the PAP¡¯s aims in silencing opposition politicians. The High Court declared Dr. Chee bankrupt at the February hearing for failing to make S$500,000 in libel payments to former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
Under Singapore’s Constitution, those who have been declared bankrupt or fined at least $2,000 cannot stand for Parliamentary elections for five years. Chee, who is the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, is already barred from contesting the next General Election, slated for later this year, after he was fined a total of $7,500 in 2002.
The International Commission of Jurists, a nongovernmental organization, observed the court case for compliance with international fair trial standards and is expected to issue a report on its findings.
AI Index: ASA 36/010/2001 (2 November 2001) Amnesty International. [http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGASA360102001].
“Courts punish Singapore politician for decrying “unfair” judicial system.” (2 March 2006) Southeast Asian Press Alliance. [http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/alertsdetail.php?No=463&keyword=chee%20soon%20juan].
“Singapore – ICJ observes trial of opposition leader charged with contempt of court.” (16 March 2006) International Commission of Jurists. [http://www.icj.org/news_multi.php3?id_groupe=2&id_mot=388&lang=en]
“S’pore politician jailed for criticising judiciary.” (17 March 2006) Reuters India. [http://in.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=worldNews&storyID=2006-03-17T183329Z_01_NOOTR_RTRJONC_0_India-241092-1.xml&archived=False]
“Statement of Chee Soon Juan submitted to the High Court, Singapore
at the Bankruptcy Petition Hearing on 10 February 2006” [http://csj.http3.net/CSJ_Bankruptcy_Press_Statement_2.pdf].
Justice for Dr Chee Soon Juan, Singapore’s prisoner of conscience: www.cheesoonjuan.blogspot.com
Singapore Democratic Party: www.sgdemocrat.org