Opposition leader charged
    for court contempt

March 1, 2006

A PROMINENT Singapore opposition leader said on Wednesday, Mar 1, he has been charged with contempt of court because he made critical comments about the Singapore judiciary.

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, was declared bankrupt by Singapore's High Court last month for failing to make libel payments to two former Singaporean prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.

In a court document seen by Reuters, the attorney-general said that Chee had acted in contempt of court during his bankruptcy petition on Feb 10 when he refused to answer the court's questions and proceeded to read his statement.

The attorney-general also said that Chee had scandalised the judiciary when he "imputed that he and other opposition politicians had suffered grave injustice because the Singapore Judiciary was not independent and compromised the law in order to gain favour with the Government".

During the hearing, Chee made a statement to the effect that the city-state's judiciary is not independent when it comes to dealing with opposition politicians. The statement was later distributed to the media, Singapore government members and international human rights organisations.

"They are coming after me for the statement I made. But the point that I want to make is that we've got to put a stop to all these defamation lawsuits which are used for political ends," Chee told Reuters on Wednesday.

Opposition politicians and human rights groups say that defamation lawsuits brought by Singapore's leaders are designed to cripple the opposition. Singapore's leaders say such action is necessary to safeguard their reputations.

Chee's February statement quoted passages from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the New York City Bar Association, which he said have all criticised Singapore's judiciary.

Legal action

Many Singapore opposition figures have faced legal action at some time by government members.

Under Singapore's laws, there is no maximum penalty for charges related to contempt of court and Chee is not the first person to be charged with contempt of court.

In 1995, Christopher Lingle, an American professor who lectured at the National University of Singapore, wrote in the International Herald Tribune that judiciaries in some Asian countries are compliant to ruling powers.

Although the article did not mention Singapore, the Singapore attorney-general pressed contempt of court charges against Lingle, charging that he was referring to Singapore.

The academic left the country, was tried in absence and fined S$10,000, which was paid from his frozen assets in Singapore.

Known for his strong criticism of the government, Chee lost a three-year legal fight against defamation suits brought by Lee and Goh in January 2005, and was ordered to pay S$500,000 (US$306,200) in damages for questioning the government's use of public funds.

Chee has already lost his right to contest the next general election -- expected later this year -- after being fined for speaking in public without a permit. He will remain barred from contesting elections as long as he remains bankrupt.

The ruling PAP -- now led by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong -- has dominated parliament since independence in 1965. It won 82 of 84 seats in the November 2001 general election, and has never lost more than four seats in any election. Chee's party has no seats.

A High Court official told Reuters on Wednesday that the attorney-general filed the contempt of court charges against Chee on Feb 24.