Singapore officials Monday amended the charge against blogger Gopalan Nair, a U.S. citizen who blogs from Fremont, California, accusing him of insulting a public official for his criticism of Singaporean Judge Belinda Ang that he published in his blog, Singapore Dissident, last month. The original charge had asserted that Nair insulted Ang in an email.
In late May 2008, Nair, a former Singaporean lawyer before he emigrated to the U.S., attended a sentencing hearing in the defamation trial of two members of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. The defendants had been found guilty of libeling former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son. Lee Kuan Yew, whom Nair frequently criticized in his blog, testified at the hearing.
In his May 29, 2008 blog entry, Nair wrote that Ang, who presided over the hearing, "prostitut[ed] herself during the entire proceedings, by being nothing more than an employee of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his son and carrying out their orders." In another blog entry, Nair challenged Lee Kuan Yew to charge him with defamation, writing "I am now within your jurisdiction.... What are you going to do about it?" On the evening of May 31, Singaporean police arrested Nair in his hotel and put him in solitary confinement until he was released on bail on June 5.
In addition to the amended charge filed Monday, Nair was also charged with contempt of court based on an email he allegedly sent to Singaporean Judge Lai Siu Chiu in March 2006. TODAYonline, a Singapore newspaper, wrote that "[a]ccording to the charge filed in the Subrodinate [sic] Court yesterday, Nair had accused Justice Lai of having 'no shame'. He also accused other judges of 'selling their souls (and) their conscience for money'. He charged: 'Your Singapore judges including Lai are corrupt judges.'"
With the original charge amended, Nair faces two counts under Section 228 of Singapore's Penal Code. Section 228 states:
Whoever intentionally offers any insult or causes any interruption to any public servant, while such public servant is sitting in any stage of a judicial proceeding shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine which may extend to $5,000, or with both.
The Strait Times reported that the charges will be heard by Singapore’s High Court. The original, unamended charge against Nair had been filed under Section 13D (1)(a) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order & Nuisance) Act, which would have been heard in the lower Subordinate Courts. As a condition of his bail, Nair must report to the police daily until July 14, when his trial date is expected to be set.
Nair’s arrest was swiftly condemned by journalistic freedom groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a press release:
Singapore’s media is tightly controlled, according to CPJ research, and is kept in line in large part due to the government’s aggressive use of libel laws.
“Singapore’s detention of Gopalan Nair for public comments about such a highly politicized case is completely unwarranted,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “Freedom to criticize the judiciary is fundamental to a modern society. This case illustrates the Singapore government’s ongoing commitment to silencing opposition voices both in print and online.”
Reporters Without Borders also criticized the decision, calling the trial that Nair initially criticized “a farce.” “This charge is improper and will add to the intimidation of bloggers and Internet users who express themselves about Singapore’s political life,” the organization added.
Despite the charges, Nair has not removed the offending blog entry from his site. He also has been updating his blog regularly with accounts of his legal proceedings. In addition, Nair’s lawyer, Chia Ti Lik, offers his view of the case on his own blog.
Reuters reported that Nair has run afoul of Singapore’s law before. In 1991, he was found guilty of contempt of court for comments he made during a political speech, and was charged 21,000 Singapore dollars in fines and legal fees. Reuters added that the U.S. embassy said that it is monitoring Nair’s case.
You can follow further developments in Singapore's dealings with Nair in our Legal Threats Database entry: Singapore v. Nair.
(Arthur Bright is a second-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a CMLP Legal Intern.)