Amnesty slams lawsuits

Sydney Morning Herald. Oct 17, 1997.

BY CHRIS LYDGATE in Singapore.

AMNESTY International has accused Singapore's leaders of using legal proceedings as a way to stifle political opposition.

"The organisation believes that Singapore's leaders are in fact resorting to defamation suits as a politically motivated tactic to silence critical views and curb opposition activity," Amnesty said in a report released on Wednesday from its London office.

The report marks one of the toughest criticisms yet in a deepening international controversy over the limits of free speech in Singapore, sparked last month by the verdict in the defamation trial of veteran opposition leader Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam. The Australian QC Mr Stuart Littlemore, who observed the trial for the International Commission of Jurists, has also blasted the judgment against Mr Jeyaretnam.

Singapore authorities, who have resolutely attacked critics such as Mr Littlemore, were unavailable for comment on the Amnesty report. In the past, however, they have maintained that Singapore's leaders bring libel suits only to defend their reputation against false accusations.

The Amnesty report pulls no punches. "Amnesty International believes that civil defamation suits are being misused by the executive to intimidate and deter those Singaporeans holding dissenting views," it states.

"The suits have a 'chilling' effect on Singapore's political iife and place unreasonable and unacceptable restrictions on the right of Singaporeans to freely hold and peacefully express their opinions. "

Local reaction to the report was difficult to gauge. Many Singaporeans critical of the government are extremely reluctant to be quoted on the record. "Of course we welcome the Amnesty report," said one source sympathetic to Mr Jeyaretnam. "We are helpless here. These libel suits are like civil torture."

A spokesman for the Singapore Democratic Party declined on legal advice to comment on any aspect of the case.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Oct 17, 1997