Singapore: Quash Prominent Activist’s Conviction

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Human rights activist Jolovan Wham arrives at the State Court in Singapore, February 21, 2019.
© 2019 REUTERS/Edgar Su

(Bangkok) – Singapore authorities should immediately quash the conviction of the human rights activist Jolovan Wham in violation of his right to peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 20, 2020, the Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of the draconian Public Order Act’s licensing requirement for a permit to hold public assemblies. Wham’s 10-day jail sentence was allowed to proceed.

In November 2016, Wham, 39, hosted an indoor event called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” for approximately 50 participants, including Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, who spoke via Skype. Nearly three years later, in January 2019, the High Court convicted Wham of “organising a public assembly without a permit,” because he did not have a permit for a foreigner to speak at the event. Wham was also convicted for refusing to sign a police statement, contending the police refused to provide him a copy. International human rights law prohibits imposing criminal penalties for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.

“It seems that not a day goes by in Singapore without the authorities coming up with absurd new reasons to deny people their rights to free speech and assembly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “One would think the authorities have more important things to do than prosecute Jolovan Wham for allowing a foreign democracy activist to speak at an event.”

For violating section 16(1)(a) of the Public Order Act, Wham was sentenced to a S$2,000 (US$1,500) fine or 10 days in jail. He chose to serve the jail sentence in lieu of paying the fine. For refusing to sign the police statement, in violation of article 180 of the Penal Code, Wham was fined S$1,200 (US$900), which he told Human Rights Watch he paid.

Wham had appealed both convictions to Singapore’s highest court, and his appeal was dismissed on October 25, 2019. In the recent ruling, the Court of Appeal rejected Wham’s claim that the Public Order Act’s licensing requirement contravenes Singapore’s constitutional guarantee of free speech under article 14(1)(b) of the Constitution, which protects the right of all citizens to “assemble peacefully without arms.”

Singaporean authorities have frequently prosecuted Wham for his peaceful activism. He served seven days in jail in April instead of paying a S$5,000 (US$3,700) fine for contempt of court, allegedly committed in a Facebook comment comparing the Singapore courts to Malaysia’s. Wham said that he refused to pay that fine because he did “not recognize the legitimacy of the judgment and the law, both of which are unjust.”

“[I]t should never be an offense to speak your truth,” he said. “Decades of oppression and persecution have resulted in the normalization of fear. It is so normalized that we have become indifferent to injustice, especially political injustice and threats to our civil rights. We have shrugged it off so much that over time, we’ve become numb to it, instead of feeling outraged. If we can’t speak up, assemble freely, and campaign without looking over our shoulders, the reforms we want can only be done on the terms of those in power. We will have to wait for when they are ready. All this could take years, decades, or never at all.”

Wham is also facing charges under the Public Order Act for holding a vigil outside Changi Prison in July 2019 for a death row inmate, and for co-organizing a silent protest on the Singapore subway to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the arrest and detention of 22 activists and volunteers under the Internal Security Act 1987. Prosecutions for these charges are ongoing.

Police also summoned Wham in May for holding up a cardboard sign with a hand-drawn “smiley face” in solidarity with climate change protesters, again allegedly in contravention of the Public Order Act. It is unclear whether he will face charges for that act.

The Singapore government’s response to Wham’s peaceful activism is a blatant attempt to silence an outspoken human rights defender, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights activists in Singapore regularly face harassment, intimidation, and unfounded charges for publicly expressing their views and organizing peaceful gatherings.

“The Singapore government plays a crude game of ‘shoot the messenger’ against social reformers whose opinions and criticism it doesn’t like,” Robertson said. “The government should drop all charges against Wham and amend the Public Order Act to bring it into line with international human rights standards for freedom of assembly.”