Singapore rights groups ‘deeply troubled’ by charges against activist, call for review of laws

Several activist and arts groups are urging the Singapore government to reconsider the laws under which civil rights activist Jolovan Wham (pic) is being prosecuted. — Reuters pic
Several activist and arts groups are urging the Singapore government to reconsider the laws under which civil rights activist Jolovan Wham (pic) is being prosecuted. — Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, March 27 — Twenty-five non-government organisations (NGOs) in Singapore, including Maruah, Pink Dot and The Online Citizen, have banded together to support civil rights activist Jolovan Wham, calling the mounting charges against him a curb on civil liberties.

This comes as Wham, 39, faces fresh investigations earlier this month for holding a piece of paper outside the State Courts and calling for criminal defamation charges against The Online Citizen’s editor Terry Xu and contributor Daniel De Costa to be dropped.

Wham already has a pending High Court hearing over his contempt of court conviction for questioning the independence of judges here last April.

In February, he was fined S$3,200 (RM9,640) for organising an assembly without a permit in 2016 and refusing to sign a statement he gave to the police on the case. He chose to serve a 16-day jail term instead of paying the fine.

In a media release put out yesterday, the groups said that they were “deeply troubled” by the charges, adding that some laws in Singapore “heavily restrict” freedom of expression “in the name of public order, foreign interference or contempt of court”.

They urged the government to “seriously reconsider” the laws under which Wham is being prosecuted.

This is needed to “ensure that our constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, speech and association are accorded the protection they deserve”, they said.

Other than those named, the joint release was signed off by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics, where Wham used to act as executive director, and Community Action Network, where he now works as a social worker.

The other signatories include rights advocacy and arts groups such as Arts Engage, Beyond the Hijab, Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation, Drama Box, Function 8, Penawar, Post-Museum, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, TheatreWorks and The Theatre Practice.

The groups made the statement that prosecuting Wham “is an affront to all our freedoms”.

“With such severe restrictions on civil liberties, our ability to stand up to injustice and pursue the changes we seek is heavily compromised.

“We must have the freedom to speak our truths — however disagreeable or inconvenient to the state — and to engage fellow citizens in frank conversations and collective action around shared concerns.”

They also said that the charges against Wham “violate our shared aspirations for a society where we have the right to assemble, associate, protest peacefully, speak and write freely, and debate difficult issues openly”.

This is not the first time that groups have banded together to call for charges brought against Wham to be dropped.

In 2017, six NGOs here issued a similar statement along with a petition signed by more than 6,000 people, questioning the initial charges brought against Wham after he organised an event that featured speakers such as Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong. It amounted to a breach under the Public Order Act, given that Wong, who spoke via a video call on Skype, was a foreigner.

In court last month, prosecutors highlighted that Wham’s “refusal to comply with the police’s directions (in that investigation) constitutes a wilful disregard for the law”.

The police had advised Wham to apply for a permit in the lead-up to the event, but he ignored it. And when an investigating officer recorded his statement afterwards, he confirmed it to be true but refused to sign it.

Regional and international groups, including European Union parliamentarians, 52 Malaysian civil society organisations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, later chimed in to say that Wham’s charges were “disproportionate and unjust”.

Noting the foreign support, the groups said in the latest statement that “if our expression is only free in Hong Lim Park, it is not free”, referring to Speakers’ Corner, a space in the park where Singapore firms and NGOs — excluding foreign groups — may hold public events and activities without a permit. — TODAY

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