Human Rights Watch slams Singapore for 'harassment' of activists over prison vigil

Police at the scene of the 13 July candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison. (Photo: Kirsten Han/Facebook)

Human rights body Human Rights Watch (HRW) has come out in support of Singapore activists who held a peaceful vigil outside Changi Prison in July, calling police investigations into the incident “harassment” of the activists.

On 13 July, anti-death penalty activists staged a candlelight vigil at the prison in support of Prabagaran Srivijayan, who was to be hanged in the early morning of 14 July. The 29-year-old Malaysian had been sentenced to death after being convicted of importing 22.24g of heroin into Singapore.

Police went to the site of the vigil and asked the group to remove the candles and photos of Prabagaran, which they later confiscated. Police also filmed the participants and took photos of the scene. The participants were told they could stay at the site as long as they did not light any more candles.

On 3 Sept, the police then sent letters to those who participated in the vigil, saying they were being investigated for taking part in a public assembly without a permit.

Freelance journalist Kirsten Han and editor of local news website The Online Citizen, Terry Xu, were part of the vigil and served with letters summoning them for questioning in relation to the incident.

On Wednesday (6 Sept), Xu said he was stopped from travelling to Malaysia while at the Woodlands Checkpoint. Xu said he was told by the police inspector who sent the letter that he could not leave the country because he had not yet completed his interview with the police.

Writing the account in a Facebook post, Xu said, “I then asked if it is certain that I can travel once I have my statement taken, it was then where he said that it will still be up to the Police to decide whether or not I can travel after the statement has been taken.

“So the thing is here, even if I am being investigated for an ‘illegal public assembly’ which the Police said it was ok at the time they turned up, what powers does the Police possess to restrict my travel without any specific mention in the law? If travel restriction is being imposed, why is it not indicated anywhere in the letter to me?”

HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson weighed in on the police investigation in a post on the website on 7 Sept, calling the investigation a “harassment campaign”. He said, “Both the belated criminal investigation and the travel ban have all the hallmarks of a harassment campaign against those who dare to peacefully criticise the government.

“The Singapore government needs to end this dubious investigation, recognise that peaceful protest is part and parcel of the democratic process, and amend the Public Order Act to respect the right to freedom of assembly.”

Han also recounted Xu’s predicament in a separate Facebook post, calling it a “confusing day”. She said, “It appears as if we have been subjected to bail conditions even though we have not been arrested, charged, or had our travel documents confiscated.

“I am aware that our restrictive public assembly laws allow the police to classify a peaceful vigil held out of compassion and solidarity as an illegal assembly. But when the laws are so broad – and the police powers so extensive – then I am concerned about a chilling effect that deters Singaporeans from being active, engaged citizens and participating in civil and political life. This, ultimately, will not benefit Singapore as our society grapples with present and future challenges,” said Han.

Local non-government organisation Function 8 also made a statement on 4 Sept calling on the Minister for Home Affairs to cease the investigation and to stop the “harassment and intimidation of citizens”.

In June, Singapore police questioned a man over a silent protest on an MRT train related to the 1987 Marxist conspiracy.

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