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(Bangkok) – Singapore continued its strict controls on free association, expression, assembly, and other basic rights in 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In Singapore, the slight relaxation of mandatory death penalty laws and curbs on an opposition party leader did little to relieve the severe restrictions the government imposes on civil society, Human Rights Watch said.

“Singaporeans who hand out political leaflets or publicly criticize a senior official can face a gauntlet of punishments, including bankruptcy-inducing fines, travel bans, and prison terms,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In Singapore, rights are only for those who reliably toe the government line.”

The Singaporean government uses various legislations to keep tight control over basic freedoms, Human Rights Watch said. For years the government has relied on direct and indirect control of two corporations to dominate traditional print and broadcast media. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires annual renewal of registration and limits circulation of foreign newspapers. A host of other laws permits the government to censor the internet, films, videos, computer games, CD-ROMs, sound recordings, and even computer-generated drawings.

Government officials have also used other laws, including the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, and the threat of civil or criminal defamation to silence public criticism. In July 2012, the attorney general’s chambers threatened to prosecute Alex Au, a prominent and well-respected blogger who alleged in an online post that the judiciary was showing undue deference to the executive branch of government – he quickly took down the post and apologized. In February, TR Emeritus, a  blogger threatened with a defamation suit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, quickly apologized for suggesting that nepotism helped Lee’s wife obtain her position as head of a state-linked firm.

Limits to free expression and peaceful assembly were further highlighted when both Yale University and the Singapore government made clear that students at the Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) campus, due to open in August 2013, will not be allowed to organize political protests on campus or form political party student groups.

In Singapore, all rallies and demonstrations are confined to just one site, the remotely placed Speaker’s Corner, and even there certain subjects, such as discussion of religion, are off-limits.

Freedom of association for Singapore’s many migrant workers is limited by laws that restrict non-Singaporeans from trade union leadership. In December, five Chinese bus drivers were arrested for leading what the authorities termed an illegal strike protesting discriminatory wages. Another 29 workers were summarily deported back to China.

“Singapore’s status as a world-class economy has not kept it from having a remarkably poor record in respecting the rule of law, and civil and political rights,” Robertson said. “The Singaporean people must be wondering when their government is going to trust them enough to exercise the same basic rights as people elsewhere.”

Major shortcomings remain in respecting due process in the criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch said. In September 2011, the Home Affairs Ministry reiterated that threats of espionage, terrorism, and racial and religious extremism keep the country’s abusive Internal Security Act (ISA) “relevant.” Both the ISA and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) allow for virtually unlimited detention without charge or judicial review.

There were some small but important positive developments during 2012, Human Rights Watch said. In November 2012, parliament passed new laws permitting judges some degree of sentencing discretion for murder and drug-related offenses that had previously automatically triggered mandatory death penalties. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances.

With regard to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, a pivotal court case was moving through the courts during the year. The Court of Appeals agreed to permit a constitutional challenge on grounds of unfair discrimination to penal code section 377A, which criminalizes sexual acts between consenting adult men.

And in September, after years of contention, former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong accepted Singapore Democrat Party Leader Chee Soon Juan’s offer of SG$30,000 (US$24,550) to settle debts arising from huge fines imposed as part of his convictions for defamation. As a result, Chee Soon Juan can now travel internationally and seek public office in Singapore. But a month later, the High Court refused to give Chee and three colleagues the opportunity to challenge their conviction for illegal assembly in 2008.

“The international community should not be taken in by Singapore claims on human rights,” Robertson said. “Ask a rights advocate, an opposition activist, or a migrant worker what they think about today’s Singapore, and the repressive back-story of this glistening city-state will come out.”

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