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‘Allowing immunity for hate speech only encourages the undermining of values in a functional democracy,’ said the head of the Law Society of Singapore.
It seemed as if Amos Yee’s trials were finally over when an immigration court judge granted him asylum on March 24, ruling that his treatment in his home country of Singapore had amounted to political persecution.
But supporters who expected his release in the weekend were stunned to find that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), despite Judge Samuel Cole stating that he was eligible for release, were still keeping the 18-year-old in detention. The News Lens understands that the Department of Homeland Security will appeal the court decision.
“Sadly, it appears Amos has become a hostage to the climate of fear generated by Donald Trump's abusive policies towards refugees and migrants, and the knee-jerk tightening of practices at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in response to the new President's executive orders,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
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Yee first gained notoriety in 2015 after releasing a YouTube video shortly after the death of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He cheered the elder statesman’s death in the profanity-strewn rant, criticizing both Lee and Christianity alike. He also shared a stick figure drawing on his blog of Lee and Margaret Thatcher engaging in intercourse. For this, he was charged and convicted for wounding religious feelings and distributing an obscene image, resulting in a backdated sentence of four weeks’ imprisonment.
His next run-in with the law came in 2016, when he was again charged and convicted for wounding religious feelings for social media posts on Islam and Christianity. He was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and fined S$2,000 (US$1,379) for failing to turn up for police questioning.
The teenager travelled to Chicago in December last year, where he was detained by the authorities after they discovered his plan to seek asylum. The time he’s spent in detention in the US has already outstripped his time behind bars in Singapore for both his convictions.
“The evidence presented at the hearing demonstrates Singapore’s prosecution of Yee was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government,” wrote immigration judge Samuel B. Cole in his decision, citing reasons such as double standards – where others who did not criticize the government were not prosecuted even when they made disparaging comments about religions – and the way the public response to Yee’s video focused largely on his political comments.
The court decision changes Yee’s status from asylum seeker to refugee, making him eligible for release from Dodge County Detention Centre in Wisconsin.
"U.S. immigration's continued detention of Amos Yee is both cruel and unnecessary, and appears to be completely arbitrary because US government lawyers did not raise any national security or other such overriding concerns that would justify holding Amos after he received political asylum,” said Robertson.
The U.S. court’s decision has not been well-received by the Singapore establishment. The Ministry of Home Affairs fired the first salvo over the weekend, framing the issue as a difference in opinion on the limits of free speech.
“The U.S. adopts a different standard, and allows such hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech,” read their statement. “Singapore takes a very different approach. Anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Quran, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, will be arrested and charged.”
The Law Society of Singapore also criticised the ruling, stating that Yee was convicted and sentenced by “competent courts in Singapore for criminal offences”.
“Allowing immunity for hate speech only encourages the undermining of values in a functional democracy,” President Gregory Vijayendran wrote in a statement.
The Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore was even more vitriolic in their response, with President Sunil Sudheesan writing that they were “outraged” by the assertion that Yee had been politically persecuted.
“Singaporeans jealously guard the multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious harmony that we have. When antisocial miscreants share their views with a view to incite hate, we fully back the efforts of the Attorney-General's Chambers to prosecute and hopefully rehabilitate such individuals,” he wrote.
He added: “If America wants this misguided recalcitrant, it can have him.”
The News Lens has reached out to Yee’s lawyers, as well as the U.S. authorities.
Editor: Edward White