Singapore authorities should exonerate a 16-year-old convicted for a blog and video post about the death of Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Amos Yee Pang Sang has a sentencing hearing today, and faces up to three years in prison or 18 months in a juvenile detention center. On May 12 a court found Yee guilty of uploading an allegedly obscene image and making remarks deemed “insulting to religion” in a video.
“Nothing that Amos Yee said or posted should ever have been considered criminal – much less merit incarceration,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The dismal state of Singapore’s respect for free expression can be seen in the decision to impose the criminal justice system on outspoken 16-year-olds.”
On March 27, Yee posted a video titled “Lee Kuan Yew is dead” on YouTube, and the next day published an image of two cartoon figures having sex, with photos of Lee, who died on March 23, and the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher superimposed on their heads. Singapore prosecutors charged Yee with violating penal code article 298 (“uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person”), punishable by three years in prison and a fine, and penal code article 292(1)(a) for transmitting obscene materials, punishable by a fine. Prosecutors filed a third charge, for violating the Prevention of Harassment Act, which outlaws “use [of] any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior,” but later withdrew the count.
The government has gone to extraordinary lengths to restrict Yee’s free expression rights. Bail conditions set on March 31 included a gag order that Yee not post any content or comments online while his case was ongoing. After he posted a note seeking donations to support his cause, the court immediately called him for violating his bail, and jailed him from April 17-21. On April 29, he again posted content online, and the next day was jailed at Changi Prison until his trial.
Under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose provisions are widely recognized as customary international law, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.” As a person under 18, Yee is protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Singapore ratified in 1995. The convention guarantees children’s rights to freedom of expression.
In the Yee case, Singapore authorities have violated other rights protected under the Child Rights Convention. Under the convention, children are only to be detained “as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” Moreover, in all government actions concerning children, “the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.”
However, by the time he was convicted, Yee had spent 18 days in jail for a nonviolent offense. When brought to court for his trial on May 7, he was handcuffed, had his legs shackled, and was wearing a prison-supplied t-shirt with “prisoner” emblazoned across the back.
On June 2, Yee rejected the prosecution’s proposal of a punishment of probation and a period of time in a Reformative Training Center (RTC). The court returned him to custody and ordered preparation of a report on the suitability of placing him in the RTC. If placed in the RTC, Yee would be expected to serve a minimum of 18 months, much longer than prison sentences meted out to other recent offenders found guilty of obscenity or insulting religion charges.
The government’s overall handling of the case raises concerns for Yee’s safety. Yee’s lawyers informed the court on June 12 that after he expressed suicidal thoughts to a prison psychiatrist, Yee was strapped to a bed in the prison’s medical facility for a day and a half – an excessive response that did not appear designed to address genuine mental health concerns. On April 30, a man assaulted Yee outside the courthouse; although the assailant was arrested and sentenced in May to three weeks in prison, the attack raises concerns about the authorities’ obligation to ensure Yee’s safety. Yee has also been subjected to hate campaigns online including threats of violence, which the authorities do not appear to have adequately investigated.
“Any further incarceration of Yee will just compound the damage to Singapore’s already poor reputation on basic freedoms,” Robertson said. “Nothing short of Yee’s release and the dismissal of all charges will vindicate Singapore’s justice system.”