Singapore: investigation into HRDs Kirsten Han & Rocky Howe allegedly in connection with their advocacy against death penalty (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to the Government of Singapore on 17 November 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply.

The Government replied on 17 January 2023, confirming that Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe were being investigated under Singapore’s Public Order Act, and contested allegations about an attempt to intimidate the two human rights defenders. The Government also reiterated Singapore’s position on capital punishment.

What follows is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response

BACKGROUND

Topic: investigation into the activities of human rights defenders Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe allegedly in connection with the exercise of their fundamental freedoms advocating against the use of the death penalty in Singapore.

Ms. Kirsten Han is a woman human rights defender and freelance journalist. She runs “We, The Citizens”, a newsletter which comments on the situation of human rights in Singapore. In 2019, she was awarded the Asia-wide Human Rights Press Award for her work covering freedom of expression issues in Singapore. As part of her journalistic work she also reports on prisoners on death row and the experiences of their families.

Mr. Rocky Howe is a human rights defender and anti-death penalty activist at the Transformative Justice Collective, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for the reform of the criminal justice system in Singapore, including on the death penalty. He also works at the Cassia Resettlement Team, researching public housing resettlement in Singapore.

ALLEGATIONS

On 30 March 2022, Ms. Kirsten Han and Mr. Rocky Howe organised a four-person gathering outside Changi Prison. The gathering was meant as a candlelight vigil for a man convicted of drug related offences who was to be executed that night. While at the vigil, Ms. Han and Mr. Howe wore t-shirts with anti-death penalty messages and Mr. Howe held up a sign reading “End oppression, not life”.

On 25 April 2022, Ms. Han and Mr. Howe took a photograph together outside Changi Prison a few days before another man convicted of drug-related offences was due to be executed. In the photograph, they were wearing anti-death penalty t-shirts. The photo was later posted on social media.

On 24 June 2022, Ms. Han and Mr. Howe were summoned for questioning by police at the Bedok Police Division Headquarters, reportedly in connection with the aforementioned events. They were not permitted to be accompanied by their lawyers. The human rights defenders wore the anti-death penalty t-shirts to the police interview, which they were forced to remove and which were confiscated by police upon arrival. They were reportedly informed by police officers that they could face an additional charge of “illegal procession” for having met beforehand and travelled together wearing the t-shirts on their way to the police station. Police officers later confirmed that the wearing of the t-shirts to the station was not considered an offence in itself, however the t-shirt would remain confiscated as part of an investigation into the photograph taken on 25 April 2022.

Ms. Han and Mr. Howe agreed to surrender her phone to police as part of the investigation. After the phone was surrendered, Ms. Han was asked to provide access to her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for the duration of the investigation, which she had logged out of before surrendering her phone. When she refused, police reportedly threatened with charging her under section 39(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code, for obstructing the police from accessing, inspecting and checking the operation of a computer used in connection with an alleged offence. The charge carries a maximum fine of 5,000 USD and/or up to six months in prison.

After several hours, the human rights defenders were allowed to leave the police station. As of today, they have not been charged and are reportedly not aware of the status of the investigation or whether police will proceed with the charge of obstruction of the exercise of police powers, in relation to access of Ms. Han’s phone.

If the human rights defenders are found guilty of organising a public assembly without a permit under section 16 of the Public Order Act, they may be fined up to 5,000 USD, for a first offence or 10,000 USD for a repeat offence, and/or up to six months in prison.

On 23 September 2022, Mr. Howe filed a case at the High Court to seek a declaration on alleged abuse of power by police in its “illegal procession” investigation against him.

At 9 a.m. on 11 October 2022, Ms. Han received a phone call from the Ang Mo Kio Police Division to inform her that she would be called into the police station for further questioning in relation to a new case. The officer reportedly initially refused to inform Ms. Han of the exact nature of the investigation, before eventually telling her that it was related to a Facebook post from 10 May 2022. The officer refused to give any further details over the phone.

The Facebook post in question is believed to be a post that Ms. Han re-shared from another individual about an investigation that he is under. It is unclear whether she is being questioned as a witness or under a separate investigation, which inhibits her ability to seek appropriate legal counsel. Ms. Han has been requested to present herself at the police station on 21 October 2022.

CONCERNS

In the communication we express our deep concern at the questioning and investigations against the peaceful human rights work of Ms. Kirsten Han and Mr. Rocky Howe. We are concerned by what appears to be an attempt to criminalise and intimidate the two human rights defenders for defending the rights of others and exercising their internationally recognised rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

We are furthermore concerned by the lack of information provided to the human rights defenders about the progress and nature of the investigation, which may inhibit their ability to continue their work in defence of human rights, notably advocating against the use of the death penalty. Regardless of the outcome, we expect that Mr. Howe’s right to bring a counter-lawsuit is fully respected and is subject to an impartial trial without fear of further intimidation or retaliation.

We reiterate concerns, as expressed in previous communications, that restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in Singapore, in cases such as described in the allegation above, are neither necessary nor proportionate and cannot be considered as lawful under international human rights law.

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