SINGAPORE — The High Court found Li Shengwu guilty of scandalising contempt of court and fined him $15,000 on Wednesday (29 June).
Li has to pay the fine within two weeks of the judgement and will have to serve one week in jail if he doesn’t make the payment.
Justice Kannan Ramesh said in a court hearing – Li was absent – that he was satisfied that the elements of the charge were proven by the Attorney-General’s Chambers; that Li intended to publish a Facebook post in 2017, the post held the real risk of undermining public confidence in administration of justice and it did not constitute fair criticism.
In July 2017, Li, 34, stated in a Facebook post that Singapore had a “pliant court system” and that the Singapore Government was "very litigious”, prompting the AGC to take him to court over possible contempt of court. The comments were made in relation to an ongoing family feud between PM Lee and his siblings over the late first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38 Oxley Road.
While noting that Li, who is the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had declined to participate in proceedings, the judge referred to Li’s second affidavit which he filed on 24 September last year, as his defence.
He noted that Li did not dispute publishing the Facebook post in question on 15 July 2017. While Li had set the post to be viewable by friends only, Li should have known that the post could have been shared beyond this circle, said the judge.
He had posted twice before in relation to the Oxley Road dispute and evidence showed that the post was widely seen, followed and covered by the media, the judge pointed out. It was foreseeable that his post about the Oxley Road dispute could have attracted interest comparable to the previous posts, Justice Ramesh said. The judge noted that Li’s position as the nephew of PM Lee and the grandson of late MM Lee would have made his post more significant in the eyes of the public.
The judge also found that Li’s post did not constitute fair criticism, as his allegation that Singapore had a pliant court system was without basis. The articles that Li had referred to offered no justification, and the fact that Li had amended his post and clarified what he meant “speaks to there being no substance to the allegation”, noted Justice Ramesh.
While Li had argued that his use of the words “a pliant court system” referred to the development of Singapore’s unique jurisprudence on defamation, Justice Ramesh said he had difficulty accepting the argument, which he found “contrived”. The interpretation suggested by Li was not apparent with the post and not consistent with the meaning of the word “pliant” – which was “an adjective for things that may be subservient and readily influenced towards a particular course”.
Said Justice Ramesh, “I find that the post, objectively viewed, impugns the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. It conveys the assertion that the judiciary decides legal proceedings brought by leaders of the government in their favour not by reason of the merits, but because it is compliant and subservient to the government.”
The judge imposed a jail term of one week in lieu of the fine, in line with case precedents.
The contempt of court hearing against Li, whose father Lee Hsien Yang is PM Lee’s younger brother, over the Facebook post was heard on 2 June – also with Li absent. No lawyer represented him for either hearing, with the prosecution on Monday telling the court that Li had been notified of proceedings by email.
Li was also ordered to pay $8,500 in costs and $8,070 for disbursements.
AGC sought deterrent fine
The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) had sought a $15,000 fine for Li, a Singaporean and an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University.
The AGC said that its proposed fine took into account the “nature and gravity of Mr Li’s contemptuous allegation, the widespread republication of his statement, and his clear lack of remorse and reprehensible conduct in these proceedings”.
It added that a substantial fine was necessary to deter Li and like-minded offenders from “making similar baseless allegations impugning the independence of the Singapore Judiciary”.
In response to the judgement, Li wrote publicly on his Facebook, “I disagree with the judgement, and worry that it will reinforce the PAP's tendency to suppress ordinary political speech. In response to three words in a private Facebook post, the government has wasted three years of civil servants’ time.”
Sharing a photo of a gift from his “Yeye”, the late Lee, Li added, “As I was arranging my bookshelf the other day, I came across a gift from my childhood... Those were better times, before my uncle bullied his siblings and tore the family apart.”
When Li was first notified by the AGC of the nature of his post, Li did not apologise or delete the post. He instead amended the post to remove the offending words and clarify what he meant. However, the amended post was only viewable by friends. He stated in a public post that he did not attack the judiciary and clarified his position.
In his affidavit, Li argued that he did not give an apology and undertaking demanded by the AGC as it would have meant he unconditionally accepted that he was in contempt of court.
Li then applied to set aside the court order that granted the AGC permission to serve papers on him in the US, but had his application dismissed by the High Court in March 2018. Li appealed against the decision in the Court of Appeal, but this too was dismissed on 1 April last year.
On 22 January this year, Li posted on his Facebook that he would no longer participate in contempt of court proceedings against him, saying that he would not “dignify the AGC's conduct by my participation”. He also discharged his lawyer Abraham Vergis.
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