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(New York) – Singapore’s Attorney General’s Chambers should cease using contempt of court charges to muzzle critics of the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should revoke the antiquated contempt offense that permits prison sentences and fines for “scandalizing the judiciary.”

On August 6, 2013, the Attorney General’s Chambers said it would not pursue its contempt case against political cartoonist Leslie Chew, 37, after he agreed to publicly apologize for publishing four cartoons on his Facebook page that the authorities claimed “scandalized the judiciary.” Chew also agreed to take down the four cartoons and accompanying reader comments from his site, and not “put up any post or comic strip, or do any other act that amounts to contempt of court.”

“Singaporean authorities must be incredibly thin-skinned to charge a political cartoonist with contempt of court, getting their way with threats of possible prison time and fines,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should lighten up, and promote the internationally recognized right to free expression by removing contempt by ‘scandalizing the judiciary.’”

“Scandalizing the judiciary” is a common law offense dating from Singapore’s British colonial past and is inconsistent with free speech rights. The United Kingdom and other Commonwealth states, including New Zealand, Canada, and Brunei Darussalam, have long since ceased to prosecute this contempt charge.  

The contempt case against Chew involved four cartoons satirizing Singapore court decisions, posted between July 2011 and June 2012. On April 19, 2013, Singapore police, saying they were responding to an anonymous complaint about “racially sensitive” cartoons on Chew’s Facebook page, named “Demon-cratic Singapore,” arrested Chew for alleged sedition. They confiscated his phone, computer, and hard disk, and demanded he surrender his passport. He was detained and questioned extensively without counsel for two-and-a-half days before being released on a S$10,000 (approximately US$7,890)police bail bond.

On July 23, the high court granted the Attorney General’s Chambers permission to bring contempt of court charges against Chew for the four cartoons, which the chambers did two days later. The cartoons satirize judges’ rulings favoring foreigners; ruling for a celebrity and against a serviceman; issuing disparate sentences for the same offense; and joining a government vendetta against leading opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. In a media statement, the chambers said that the court case was “aimed at protecting the administration of justice… and upholding the integrity of one of our key public institutions.”

On July 29, the Attorney General’s Chambers declined to prosecute Chew under the Sedition Act, allowed the police bail connected to the sedition investigation to lapse, and ordered the return of his passport. A hearing on the contempt charges had been scheduled for the high court on August 12.

An April 27 statement by the Attorney General’s Chambers on Chew’s case noted that “seeking to undermine the judiciary will result in action, and that any implicit suggestion that the judiciary is not independent or impartial cannot be left to stand unchallenged and unpunished.” Chew’s treatment has been similar to that of British journalist Alan Shadrake, who was sentenced, in November 2010, to six weeks in prison and a S$20,000 fine (approximately US$15,780)for suggesting in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, that Singapore’s judiciary lacked independence. He wrote that the mandatory death penalty for drug offenses was not being equitably applied, but rather was affected by political interference from the ruling People’s Action Party and considerations of the defendant’s family’s wealth and status.

In another recent case, the Attorney General’s Chambers threatened to bring a contempt case against blogger Alex Au for a June 2012 web post alleging that the courts are biased towards the well connected. Au apologized and removed the post, but faced additional legal action for ensuing posts that criticized the government.

International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly recognized as customary law, states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.”

International standards only allow content-based restrictions on expression in extremely narrow circumstances, such as defamation or threats to national security or public order. Restrictions must be provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to the interest protected.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment No. 34 on the right to freedom of expression, states that “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” The Human Rights Committee monitors the compliance of states party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Singapore has not ratified.

“By prosecuting critics using antiquated contempt charges, Singapore is again demonstrating how out of step it is with international human rights standards,” Robertson said. “The authorities may be empowered to smack down cartoonists, authors, and journalists, but it’s the Singaporean people who truly suffer the most harm.”

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