US judge grants Amos Yee's asylum request

Mr Yee, who has been in immigration detention since his arrival in the US last December, is now eligible for release, according to his lawyer.
Mr Yee, who has been in immigration detention since his arrival in the US last December, is now eligible for release, according to his lawyer.ST FILE PHOTO

Teenage blogger qualifies as political refugee; US government has 30 days to file an appeal

•Singaporean blogger Amos Yee, who was jailed twice here for hate speech, has been granted asylum in the United States.

Despite opposition from the US Department of Homeland Security, an immigration judge in Chicago decided that he had been persecuted for his political opinions in Singapore and qualifies as a political refugee. Unless the US government appeals, the 18-year-old will be able to live and work in America.

Judge Samuel Cole on Friday said that Mr Yee's "prosecution, detention and general maltreatment at the hands of the Singapore authorities constitute persecution on account of Yee's political opinions" and called him a "young political dissident".

Yesterday, Singapore responded to the judge's decision with a statement which stated the obscenity-laden quotes that Mr Yee disseminated and got into trouble for with the law.

The statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs added that the US adopts a different standard from Singapore towards hate speech.

  • WHAT HAPPENED

  • March 31, 2015

    Blogger Amos Yee Pang Sang, then 16, is charged over the posting of an expletive-laden video clip containing offensive remarks against Christianity and an obscene image of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew with the late former British premier Margaret Thatcher.

    May 12, 2015

    A district judge convicts him of the two charges and he is offered bail while being assessed for probation.

    June 2, 2015

    He is taken into remand to assess his suitability for reformative training.

    July 6, 2015

    He is jailed for four weeks, with the sentence backdated, and he is released on the same day.

    May 26, 2016

    The teenager is charged in court for posting five videos and a photo, some of which show him insulting the Bible and Quran. He is also charged with failing to report to the Jurong Police Division for investigations.

    Sept 29, 2016

    He is sentenced to six weeks' jail and fined $2,000 after pleading guilty to eight charges.

    Dec 16, 2017

    He arrives in Chicago in his bid for political asylum in the US, and is detained.

    March 7, 2017

    A US Immigration Court hears his application.

    March 24, 2017

    US Immigration Judge Samuel Cole grants him asylum.

The US "allows such hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech. The US, for example, in the name of freedom of speech, allows the burning of the Quran". Singapore, said the MHA, takes a very different approach.

"Anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Quran, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, will be arrested and charged."

Held in US immigration detention since Dec 16 last year, when he arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport seeking political asylum, the judge's decision means Mr Yee is immediately eligible to go free, according to his lawyer, Ms Sandra Grossman.

He is currently being held at the Dodge County Detention Facility in Juneau, Wisconsin.

She said that she was told by the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office that he will be transferred to an ICE detention facility in Chicago tomorrow and will be considered for release, reported Agence France-Presse.

The decision is the latest twist in Mr Yee's saga.

In 2015, he was convicted on charges of insulting a religious group over comments that he made about Christians, and transmitting an obscene image of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

He was sentenced to four weeks in jail, but he served 50 days after repeatedly breaching bail conditions.

In September last year, he pleaded guilty to six charges of deliberately posting comments on the Internet - in videos and blog posts - that were derogatory of Christianity and Islam. He was sentenced to six weeks in jail.

When he fled to the US, he first said he regretted his actions in Singapore, before complaining about conditions there, and getting into trouble.

On Dec 30, he told Reuters that the videos he filmed insulting Singapore's late prime minister and various religions were in bad taste. "I told you, it is hate speech, it is overly rude, it isn't good activism," Mr Yee said by telephone. "I completely regret making those videos."

As he continued to be kept in detention, he went on Facebook to remonstrate about the "awful" and "absurd" immigration policies in the US, adding that the court was taking too long to decide on his application.

Mr Yee, who was helped by US-based Singaporean human rights activist Melissa Chen, also said that he risked "languishing" in remand in the US longer than the 50 days he was jailed in Singapore, and called for activists and his supporters to push for his release.

On Feb 25, Mr Yee's mother, Mrs Mary Toh, posted on Facebook that he had been put in solitary confinement for 14 days for "criticising Islam in Muslim Studies" in the US. She also accused the sergeant of the county jail of keeping Mr Yee locked up longer than he should, and asked people to spread the news.

The case has generated international attention, with newspapers around the world carrying reports about its twists and turns.

In his 13-page opinion, Judge Cole wrote: "The evidence presented at the hearing demonstrates Singapore's prosecution of Yee was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore Government."

The Department of Homeland Security had opposed Mr Yee's asylum application, saying that the Singapore Government legitimately prosecuted Mr Yee under laws of general applicability, which are neutral towards speech or religion.

It has 30 days - until April 24 - to file an appeal against the ruling. If the US government fails to appeal, the decision will become final.

Ms Grossman said yesterday that the judge's decision supported the right of individuals to criticise their governments.

"The right to free speech is sacred, even when such speech is considered offensive," she said in an e-mail sent to Reuters. "The decision timely underscores the vital need for an independent judiciary in a functioning democracy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'US judge grants Amos Yee's asylum request'. Print Edition | Subscribe