Activist Jolovan Wham chooses to serve 15-day jail term in lieu of fine over assembly outside State Courts

Jolovan Wham at the State Courts in February. He was found guilty in January of holding a public assembly in a prohibited area. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Activist Jolovan Wham chose to start serving a 15-day jail term in lieu of paying a $3,000 fine on Friday, after the High Court dismissed his appeal for holding a one-person assembly outside the former State Courts building.

The 42-year-old had on the morning of Dec 13, 2018, held up a sign outside the main entrance of the building while a woman took a photo of him.

The photo later appeared on Wham's Facebook page.

The sign bore the text "Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa", referring to criminal defamation charges against Mr Xu, the chief editor of The Online Citizen and Mr De Costa, a contributor to the now-defunct sociopolitical website.

Wham was found guilty in January this year of holding a public assembly in a prohibited area and sentenced to a $3,000 fine.

The district judge found that Wham knew he could not hold an assembly at that area without official permission, even if was a brief assembly involving just one person.

On Friday, his lawyer, Mr Johannes Hadi, argued that Wham's actions, of taking a quick photograph outside the building while holding up a sign, did not fall within the definition of an assembly under the Public Order Act.

He said the definition of "assembly" under the law was over-inclusive and could be interpreted broadly to encompass birthday celebrations in a public restaurant.

Mr Hadi argued that the law should be interpreted more narrowly, such that only actions that pose a risk to public order would fall within the definition of "assembly".

He said the risk posed to public order by Wham's actions was "nearly negligible".

Deputy Attorney-General Tai Wei Shyong countered that the proposed interpretation would undermine the purpose of the permit scheme, which is to pre-empt and prevent instances of public disorder.

The prosecutor said the State Courts building is one of the locations designated as a prohibited area under the Act due to higher security requirements.

Mr Tai said it seemed to him that Wham was not really serious about protesting or demonstrating but was on a "campaign... to challenge the permit regime".

The prosecutor said Wham had on Nov 9, 2018, applied for a permit to hold an assembly at the Padang on Dec 10 that year.

On Nov 21 that year, he told the police that he wanted to change the location to 15m outside the main entrance of the State Courts.

On Dec 5, the police told him the permit application had been rejected and suggested he hold his event at Speakers' Corner, where permits are not required.

On Dec 13, 2018, while he was arriving at the State Courts to attend the court mentions of Mr Xu and Mr De Costa, Wham took out a sign he had printed and asked an unidentified woman to take a photo of him.

Mr Xu and Mr De Costa were each sentenced to three weeks' jail in April this year.

Justice Vincent Hoong said he will give written reasons for dismissing Wham's appeal at a later date.

Last year, Wham chose to serve 22 days in jail in lieu of a $8,000 fine over a protest held on MRT trains in 2017.

In 2019, he was fined $3,200 over an indoor event he had organised in 2016 that featured Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong delivering a speech via a video call.

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