Choosing jail time over a court-imposed fine, civil rights activist Jolovan Wham was sentenced today, 21 February 2019, to at least two weeks of imprisonment for illegally organizing a public discussion that featured Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who spoke over Skype.
“I don’t want to pay the fine because I don’t wish to validate a system which does not respect freedom of expression and where even having a harmless Skype call is considered an offence. Singapore is not a real democracy yet but one day we will get there!”, Wham said.
Wham was fined SGD 2,000 (around USD 1,500) for the same offense and SGD 1,200 (around USD 890) for refusing to sign a police statement.
Convicted on 3 January 2019 for violating the Public Order Act, Wham’s sentencing was originally scheduled for 23 January 2019, before it was moved twice, first to 11 February then to 21 February 2019.
His 16-day default sentence covered 10 days for organizing a public assembly without a police permit and six days for not signing the witness statement he gave to police. Following the Thursday sentencing, he was allowed to post bail amounting to SGD 8,000 (USD 5,900).
Wham organized an indoor discussion in Singapore titled “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements on 26 November 2016. The event featured freelance journalist Kirsten Han, fellow activist Seelan Palay, and Wong.
United Nations experts have expressed concern on Wham’s conviction, saying it “targets the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Singapore.”
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of right to freedom of opinion and expression; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association urged the Singapore government to “reverse its tightening civic space.”
Wham is also scheduled to hear the sentence for contempt of court charges against him on 20 March 2019. The case arose from his Facebook post, dated 27 April 2018, saying “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications. Will be interesting to see what happens to this challenge.” He was found guilty of the charge in October last year.
Considered among the first convictions for contempt of court in Singapore, Wham was tried under the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016.
Opposition politician John Tan was convicted for the same offense for “wrongfully assert(ing)” Wham’s Facebook post on 15 May 2018. He and Wham may face a maximum fine of SGD100,000 and a jail term of up to three years. Wham is scheduled to be sentenced on 20 March 2019.
The Singapore government has drawn heavy criticism from around the world for its suppression of free expression and assembly in the city-state.
The 2019 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report said “the government’s heavy-handed response to free expression showed no signs of relenting in 2018,” quoting HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
UN experts have expressed alarm “that expressing an opinion about Singapore’s judiciary can be considered a criminal offence.” They called on the Singapore government to ensure fundamental rights for all, reacting to the conviction of Wham.