It was just him and his smiling face. He is accused of illegal assembly.

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The offense involved a man, a piece of cardboard and a smiling face.

On Monday, Jolovan Wham, a civil rights activist, was charged in a Singapore court with unlawful public assembly for holding up a cardboard sign with a smiling face near a police station in March. It was a one-person protest. He had, he admitted, drawn the smiling face himself.

Opposed to potential threats to its stable and orderly state, Singapore is bound by strict rules on civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly. Public demonstrations without a permit are permitted in one location in the city-state, and only after completing a registration process. The Online Falsehood and Manipulation Protection Act, which was enacted last year, governs online activity.

Mr Wham said he waved the smiley face in favor of two young activists who had been investigated for holding up signs calling on Singapore to tackle climate change by reducing dependence on the city-state petroleum.

“You would think the Singaporean authorities would be smart enough not to take on such a ridiculous case that would make it a laughing stock around the world, but they are blinded by their command and control mindset that prefers a response. maximum at the slightest provocation. Said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Mr Wham, who wore a smiling shirt and face mask as he walked to his hearing on Monday, was also charged with breaking public order law for an incident in 2018 when he held up a message typed on a piece of paper outside. the old building of the State Court. The post called for the dropping of libel charges against an online media editor and writer who had accused senior government officials of corruption.

In both cases, Mr Wham said he lingered for just “more than several seconds”, just long enough for the photos to be taken and posted on social media. If found guilty, he could be fined up to $ 3,725 for each offense.

Credit…Jolovan Wham, via Reuters

“The law on public order was enacted to preserve public order and the safety of individuals, who were not compromised when I took the photos and uploaded them to social media,” said M .Wham. “The accusations demonstrate that our laws have the potential to be enforced in ridiculous and overbearing ways. “

Public demonstrations without a permit in Singapore are confined to one location, a location in a park called Speakers’ Corner. In a statement issued on Friday, police said that “the Speakers’ Corner is the appropriate way for Singaporeans to express their views on issues that concern them and to enable Singaporeans to hold meetings without the need for a permit, under certain conditions. to be met. “

With the coronavirus restrictions in place, the Speakers’ Corner is currently not in use.

Mr Wham, who has worked as a social worker, also lobbied for the rights of migrant workers in Singapore. While the city-state kept its coronavirus death toll below 30, the virus quickly spread to crowded dormitories for foreign manual workers.

Earlier this year, Mr. Wham was jailed twice. In August, he served 10 days in prison for violating the public order law by hosting a conference in which Joshua Wong, a democracy activist in Hong Kong, participated by video. (On Monday, in another case, Mr. Wong pleaded guilty to unauthorized assembly in Hong Kong.)

Confirming Mr Wham’s conviction in this case and dismissing a constitutional challenge to the law on public order, the Court of Appeal declared that “it is, unfortunately, an inescapable fact of modern life that national politics , wherever it is, is often the target of interference by foreign entities. or individuals who promote their own programs. “

And in March, Mr Wham spent a week in jail for contempt of court, after comparing the justice system in Singapore unfavorably with that in neighboring Malaysia.

Shortly before his first stint in prison this year, Mr Wham posted a social media post.

“It should never be an offense to speak your truth,” he wrote. “If we cannot speak up, rally freely and campaign without looking over our shoulders, the reforms we want can only be carried out on the terms of those in power.”

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