Jolovan Wham fails appeal over illegal sitting out of court, chooses to go back to jail

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SINGAPORE: Activist Jolovan Wham is going to jail instead of paying a third fine after losing his 2018 appeal against his verdict and conviction for an illegal meeting outside state courts.

Wham, 42, went to the Supreme Court Friday (Sept. 9) to appeal his conviction on one charge of participating in a meeting in a restricted area under the Public Order Act.

He also appealed his sentence, a fine of S$3,000 handed out in February. If he does not pay the fine, the jail term is 15 days.

Wham’s charges were for holding up a sign that read “Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa” outside the state courts on the morning of December 13, 2018.

Terry Xu Yuanchen, editor-in-chief of The Online Citizen, and Daniel De Costa Augustin were charged in state courts that day with criminal defamation over an article written for the now-defunct website.

On Friday, Wham appeared in a shirt with a smiley face, along with a group of supporters. He had previously been acquitted for holding a piece of cardboard with a smiley face in Toa Payoh during another demonstration in March 2020.

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His attorney Johannes Hadi posed a question to the court: “Does a person need a permit to photograph outside of state courts?”

He argued that where there is “no risk to public order”, such an act does not fall within the definition of a meeting under the Public Order Act.

If the appeal against the conviction was dismissed, he instead asked for a lesser fine of S$1,500 or five days in jail.

Deputy Attorney General Tai Wei Shyong said it is not up to Wham to determine whether his activity poses a threat to public order.

He pointed out that Wham’s argument that an activity must cause real or potential disturbances to public order before it can be considered a meeting “is fundamentally inconsistent” with Wham’s previous permit application.

Before the incident out of state courts on December 13, 2018, Wham had filed at least eight applications under the Public Order Act between 2010 and 2018 for permits to hold meetings and/or processions.

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In particular, on November 9, 2018, Wham applied for a permit to hold a meeting for Human Rights Day in Padang on December 10, 2018. He later wrote to the police on November 21, 2018: “I would like to change the location to 15 meters outside the main entrance of the State Courts on December 9, 2018 at 2100. Is this okay?”

His permit application was rejected on December 5, 2018, with police telling Wham that he might want to hold his event at Speakers’ Corner.

The fact that Wham applied for a permit means he considered what he wanted to do as falling under the permit regime, Mr Tai said.

Wham had taken another similar case all the way to the Court of Appeals, essentially challenging the licensing system, Mr Tai said.

“The whole purpose of this is to put the demonstration on social media,” he said. “This is the modus operandi that has been used in this case and which I believe can be used in the future.”

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He added that “this is essentially what the activists are doing,” saying the social media reach is relevant when it comes to sentencing.

Justice Vincent Hoong said he believed the appeal should be dismissed, adding that he would provide his reasons at a later date.

Wham confirmed that he has not paid his fine and will instead be serving the standard 15 days in prison from Friday.

This is the third time Wham has chosen to go to jail instead of paying a fine. The first was in January 2019, when he was fined S$2,000 for hosting an unlicensed public meeting in an event titled Civil Disobedience and Social Movements.

The second time was in February last year when he was fined S$4,500 for hosting an unlicensed public meeting aboard an MRT train commemorating Operation Spectrum.

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