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S'pore politician jailed for criticising judiciary

Written by: Staff

SINGAPORE, Mar 17 (Reuters) A Singapore court jailed a prominent opposition leader for eight days today for questioning the independence of the city-state's judiciary.

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was sentenced to one day in jail and another week for failing to pay a 6,000 singapore dollars (3,700 dollars) fine the same day that he was sentenced. Chee was arrested and transferred to the Queenstown Remand Prison straight from court.

A vocal campaigner for human rights and free speech, Chee has been in prison before: 5 weeks in 2002, and 12 days and one week in 1999, each time for speaking in public without a permit.

Chee's new jail term comes ahead of elections expected later this year, which he cannot contest as he has been bankrupted by a defamation suit brought against him by government ministers. Under Singapore law, bankrupts cannot run for parliament.

When he was declared bankrupt during a February . 10 court hearing, Chee had questioned the independence of the Singapore judiciary in its treatment of opposition politicians. He was found guilty of contempt of court yesterday.

Lee Seiu Kin, second solicitor-general for the attorney general, told the court today that ''the nature of Chee's remarks are without precedent'' and ''contemptuous in the extreme''.

The attorney-general charged that Chee had ''scandalised'' the judiciary during his bankruptcy petition when he ''imputed that he and other opposition politicians had suffered grave injustice because the Singapore judiciary was not independent and compromised the law in order to gain favour with the government''.

John Dowd, president of the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists, attended the hearing as an observer but declined to comment.

Chee's supporters said the sentence was relatively lenient.

''I had expected a longer sentence,'' Chee's sister and SDP party offial Chee Siok Chin told Reuters.

Chee's party does not have a seat in parliament but has said it will run in upcoming elections which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is widely expected to call in the next few months.

The US Department of State, in a March 8 report on human rights practices in Singapore, criticised the city-state's judiciary and questioned its independence in defamation cases targeting opposition leaders.

''The report discusses the use of defamation suits and the relationship between the government and the judiciary, and cites the previous defamation case against opposition leader Chee Soon Juan as an example,'' a US embassy official told Reuters.

Singapore's leaders say the defamation suits are necessary to safeguard their reputations.

The High Court declared Chee bankrupt last month for failing to make 500,000 singapore dollars in libel payments to former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, who had sued Chee for questioning the government's use of public funds.

Chee is the Singapore government's most acerbic critic and has had several run-ins with the People's Action Party, which has ruled the city-state since independence in 1965.

In 1993, months after Chee ran in a by-election for the SDP, he was sacked from his job as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore, which accused him of improperly using 226 singapore dollars of his research grant for postage.

When Chee said the evidence was fabricated, he was sued for defamation by his former department head -- a PAP member of parliament -- and ordered to pay 0,000 plus court costs.


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