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Jolovan Wham convicted of unlawful assembly for holding sign outside former State Courts building

SINGAPORE — Activist Jolovan Wham was found guilty on Friday (Jan 7) of taking part in an unlawful assembly for holding a sign outside the former State Courts building in 2018.

Activist Jolovan Wham outside the State Courts in August 2021. He wore a similar T-shirt for this court appearance on Jan 7, 2022.

Activist Jolovan Wham outside the State Courts in August 2021. He wore a similar T-shirt for this court appearance on Jan 7, 2022.

  • Jolovan Wham, 42, was convicted of one count of taking part in a prohibited assembly
  • In 2018, he held a piece of paper outside the former State Courts building protesting the prosecution of Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa
  • Wham currently faces a separate charge under the Public Order Act for holding a cardboard smiley face near a police station
  • He will return to court to be sentenced over his latest conviction on Feb 25

SINGAPORE — Activist Jolovan Wham was found guilty on Friday (Jan 7) of taking part in an unlawful assembly for holding a sign outside the former State Courts building in 2018.

Standing on the steps to the building's entrance, Wham held a piece of paper that read: “Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa”.

He then arranged for a photo to be taken of himself holding up the sign and uploaded it on Facebook with the hashtag #insolidarity.

Xu, the former chief editor of the defunct sociopolitical website The Online Citizen, and De Costa were about to face criminal defamation charges that day for publishing an article alleging corruption within the highest ranks of the Government.

On Friday, District Judge Eugene Teo convicted 42-year-old Wham after the civil rights activist claimed trial to the sole charge of taking part in a prohibited assembly.

The judge ruled that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Wham's actions that morning constituted an illegal assembly. 

During the trial, Wham offered no evidence and chose to remain silent.

That sartorial direction appears to be what Mr Wham has since taken to doing as well.
District Judge Eugene Teo after defence lawyers mentioned that some people wore T-shirts with slogans advocating a position

His lawyers argued that the act of holding a sign for a few seconds for a quick photoshoot did not cross the threshold required to constitute an assembly. 

The judge disagreed. Wham’s actions “clearly demonstrated his support for the views and actions of Mr Terry Xu and Mr Daniel De Costa, and his opposition to the state in prosecuting them for their actions”, he said.

The judge added that while surveillance footage showed that no passersby paid any heed to his actions, Wham posted a photo of his protest on Facebook to broadcast his message.

Wham’s lawyers, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mr Suang Wijaya and Mr Johannes Hadi, also argued that the prosecution’s interpretation of the law would result in “absurdity”.

This would mean that a person wearing T-shirts publicly with slogans advocating a particular position could run afoul of the law, they said.

To that, the judge said: “That sartorial direction appears to be what Mr Wham has since taken to doing as well. 

“In that regard, it really should not come as a surprise if there have been such individuals who were taken to task for those actions in the past, or that there may be others in the future.”

He added, however, that whether a person is hauled to court for doing so would depend, among other factors, on whether the prosecutors find that it is in the public interest to take action.

That backdrop of settled facts indicated that Mr Wham well knew he could not hold an assembly at that area without official permission, even if the proposed assembly was brief, and even if it involved just one person.
District Judge Eugene Teo

Furthermore, the judge said that any claim that he was prosecuted for merely taking a photo was intentionally misleading.

Rather, the present case related to his demonstration over the prosecution of Xu and De Costa by publicly holding the sign, he said.

“The photo merely constituted evidence of his having taken part in that assembly, and he was not being prosecuted for arranging and supplying that evidence of his wrong-doing,” the judge said.

Wham’s lawyers also argued that it was unreasonable for the court to find that Wham ought to have known that holding an assembly outside the State Courts was prohibited. 

They called experienced police officers to the stand who testified that they were not familiar that the area was prohibited.

The judge noted, however, that Wham had his application for a separate permit for a one-person assembly at the same location rejected just a few days prior.

“That backdrop of settled facts indicated that Mr Wham well knew he could not hold an assembly at that area without official permission, even if the proposed assembly was brief, and even if it involved just one person,” the judge said.

Wham will return to court on Feb 25 for sentencing.

For taking part in a prohibited assembly, he could be fined up to S$5,000.

On Friday, the former executive director of migrant worker group Home appeared in court in a T-shirt that read: “Not a public assembly. Just an individual in a T-shirt.”

He wore a face mask with a smiley face printed on it. 

Wham is facing a separate charge of taking part in a public assembly without permit for allegedly holding up a cardboard with a smiley face drawn on it near the Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre. He then posted a photo of it online.

In February last year, he was fined S$8,000 for organising an illegal public assembly on an MRT train in 2017.

In April 2019, he was fined S$5,000 for contempt of court after publishing a Facebook post alleging that Malaysia's judges were more independent than Singapore's in cases with political implications.

In January 2019, Wham was fined S$3,200 for organising an event, titled Civil Disobedience and Social Movements, which featured Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong making a speech. The High Court dismissed his appeal against the conviction in late 2020.

Xu and De Costa were convicted of criminal defamation in November last year and have yet to be sentenced.

Related topics

Jolovan Wham Terry Xu illegal assembly State courts

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