Associated Press

Singapore, May 28:

Singapore’s leading civil rights activist — bankrupt after repeated lawsuits by the city-state’s top leaders — today backed Amnesty International’s allegations that the ruling party uses “potentially ruinous” defamation suits to crush its opponents. Leaders of the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, sue opponents “to silence selected opposition figures and remove them from public life,” the London-based human rights group said in its 2004 annual report, released on Wednesday. Singapore bars bankrupts from running for or holding a parliamentary seat.

“The threat of potentially ruinous civil defamation suits against opponents of the PAP continued to inhibit political life and engendered a climate of self-censorship,” the report said. “It’s true,” Singapore opposition politician Joshua “JB” Jeyaretnam told The Associated Press. “The frequency of libel suits and the crippling damages awarded by the Singapore court make Singaporeans think twice about making any statement or writing anything critical of the

government.”

The country’s leaders argue that they have the right to use defamation lawsuits to protect their reputations from false allegations, and say their legal moves don’t stifle free speech. The Ministry of Home Affairs did not immediately respond today to a request for comment on Amnesty’s report. Jeyaretnam — one of a scant handful of opposition politicians in this tightly controlled city-state — was declared bankrupt in 2001 after missing a single payment stemming from a 500,000 Singapore dollar (US$298,000) 1995 defamation lawsuit brought by ruling party members.

Another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, lost a defamation suit brought last year by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. Amnesty’s report also said Singapore’s continued detention without trial of 37 men with alleged links to terrorist outfit Al Qaeda is a violation of human rights. Singapore law effectively allows terror suspects to be held without charge indefinitely. The suspects are alleged members of Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah and the Philippines-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front terrorist groups.