Li Shengwu sentenced to $15,000 fine for contempt; one week's jail if he does not pay

Mr Li Shengwu was absent from court. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The High Court on Wednesday (July 29) sentenced economist Li Shengwu to a $15,000 fine after finding him guilty of contempt by scandalising the court in a Facebook post he made in July 2017.

If Dr Li does not pay the fine within two weeks, he will have to serve a default sentence of one week's jail.

He was also ordered to pay $8,500 for legal costs and $8,070.69 for disbursements to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC).

Dr Li, who announced in January that he would no longer participate in the contempt proceedings, was absent from court.

The 35-year-old, an assistant professor at Harvard University in the United States, later responded to the verdict with a Facebook post saying that he disagreed with the judgment.

He added that "three years of civil servants' time" had been wasted in response to "three words in a private Facebook post".

Dr Li is the son of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In his July 15, 2017, post, Dr Li wrote that the Singapore Government is "very litigious and has a pliant court system".

The post was related to the ongoing family dispute involving his father, his aunt Lee Wei Ling, and PM Lee over the Oxley Road home of their late father and Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Dr Li's post also included a link to a 2010 New York Times editorial which criticised his grandfather for running "an authoritarian regime" that cowed critics through libel actions.

On July 21, 2017, the AGC asked Dr Li to take down his post and issue an apology. Dr Li amended the post but did not delete it or apologise.

On Aug 4, 2017, the AGC started contempt proceedings against Dr Li, who then mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge against the process by which court papers were served on him in the US.

In his judgment on Wednesday, Justice Kannan Ramesh found that Dr Li's post posed a real risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice.

"It is clear that the post conveys the meaning that the judiciary is not independent and impartial, and is susceptible to influence or pressure from the Government where legal proceedings are brought by its leaders," said the judge.

He rejected Dr Li's argument that the post was private and not meant for public dissemination as it was visible only to his Facebook friends.

This argument, said the judge, skirted the core issue of whether it was reasonably foreseeable that the post would be republished.

Pointing to court rulings in the US and New Zealand, Justice Ramesh said: "There is no justifiable expectation of privacy even where a Facebook post is published on a 'Friends' only setting."

In fact, Facebook itself warns of the risk of republication, he added.

Justice Ramesh said Dr Li ought to have foreseen the risk of dissemination, given its "controversial and inflammatory" nature and that it was made at a time when there was significant interest in the Oxley Road dispute.

The fact that the post was from Dr Li, a member of the family at the heart of the dispute, arguably lent it credence in the eyes of the public, said the judge.

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