HONG KONG >> Prosecutors in Singapore have charged an activist with holding unauthorized public assemblies, which human rights groups have criticized as an excessive restriction on free speech.
Jolovan Wham, 37, was accused of organizing three small gatherings over the past year, including one that featured Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong democracy advocate, speaking by Skype. Authorities say Wham did not receive a police permit for the gatherings, a violation of the city-state’s Public Order Act that is punishable by fines of up to $3,715 for a first offense.
Singapore has strict limits on speech and unauthorized public assembly, even for political gatherings that are small and peaceful. Free speech organizations say such laws are far too harsh.
“Prosecuting Jolovan Wham for holding peaceful gatherings demonstrates the absurdity of Singapore’s laws on public assemblies and the government’s willingness to penalize those who speak out,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Singapore government should start listening to criticism, stop treating peaceful assemblies as crimes and cease prosecuting their organizers.”
Wham was also charged with one count of vandalism — punishable by up to three years in prison and three to eight cane strokes — and three counts of refusing to sign his statements to the police, punishable by up to three months in prison.
“Wham is recalcitrant and has repeatedly shown blatant disregard for the law, especially with regard to organizing or participating in illegal public assemblies,” the police said in a written statement. They said Singapore citizens could legally organize public assemblies to discuss political issues in the Speaker’s Corner of Hong Lim Park.
Wham said he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. “My actions did not cause any public disturbance or damage or deface any property,” he said by email. “It is also quite absurd that I am being charged for allowing a foreigner to speak at an event about social movements via Skype.”
Under Singapore law, a police permit is required for foreign speakers to participate in some kinds of events.
Wham said he thought what he did “was within reasonable boundaries” but expected to be charged, “as the Singapore government has little tolerance for freedom of assembly and speech.”
Wham, a Singapore citizen, was previously the executive director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a group that aids foreign workers in the city-state.
In addition to the talk last November talk with Wong on social movements, Wham also held a “silent protest” on the Singapore subway in June. That event marked the 30th anniversary of the “Operation Spectrum” arrests of people accused of an alleged Marxist plot who say they underwent harsh interrogations.
Police said Wham taped two sheets of paper — reading “MARXIST CONSPIRACY?,” “#nodetentionwithouttrial” and “JUSTICE FOR OPERATION SPECTRUM SURVIVORS” — inside the train car during the June protest, which led to the vandalism charge.
He also led a gathering outside Changi Prison in July before the execution of Prabagaran Srivijayan, a Malaysian man convicted of drug trafficking.
Demosisto, the Hong Kong political party co-founded by Wong, said it “regrets and is deeply saddened” by the charges against the Singapore activist.
Wong “maintains that exchanges between civil societies regarding social movement are of utmost importance, especially within East Asia,” the party said. “He would like to express solidarity from Hong Kong civil society with Wham, and to thank him for his bravery.”