The offense involved one man, one piece of cardboard and one smiley face.

On Monday, Jolovan Wham, a civil rights activist, was charged at a court in Singapore with illegal public assembly for holding up a cardboard sign with a smiley face on it near a police station in March. It was a protest of one person. He had, he admitted, drawn the smiley face himself.

Averse to potential threats to its stable, orderly state, Singapore is bound by strict rules on civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly. Public protest without a permit is allowed in just one spot in the city-state, and only after completing a registration process. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which was enacted last year, polices activity online.

Wham said he had held up the smiley face sign in support of two young activists who had been investigated for holding up signs calling for Singapore to fight climate change by reducing the city-state’s dependence on oil.

“You would think that the Singaporean authorities would be smart enough to not take on such a ridiculous case that will make them a laughingstock around the world, but they are blinded by their command and control mindset that prefers maximum response to the slightest provocation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Wham, who wore a smiley face shirt and face mask as he traveled to his court hearing Monday, was also charged with contravening the Public Order Act for an incident in 2018 when he held up a typed message on a piece of paper outside the former State Courts building. The message called for defamation charges to be dropped against an online media editor and writer who had accused high-ranking government officials of corruption.

In both cases, Wham said he lingered for barely “more than several seconds,” just enough time for photographs to be taken and posted on social media. If found guilty, he could be fined up to $3,725 for each infraction.

“The Public Order Act was purportedly enacted to preserve public order and the safety of individuals, both of which were not compromised when I took the photos and uploaded them on social media,” Wham said. “The charges demonstrate that our laws have the potential to be applied in ridiculous and overbearing ways.”

Public protest without a permit in Singapore is confined to a spot in a park called the Speakers’ Corner. In a statement released Friday, police said that “the Speakers’ Corner is the proper avenue for Singaporeans to express their views on issues that concern them, and to allow Singaporeans to conduct assemblies without the need for a permit, subject to certain conditions being met.”

With coronavirus restrictions in place, the Speakers’ Corner is currently not in use.

Wham, who has worked as a social worker, has also lobbied for migrant worker rights in Singapore. While the city-state has kept its coronavirus death toll below 30 people, the virus spread quickly in crowded dormitories for foreign manual laborers.

Earlier this year, Wham was jailed twice. In August, he served 10 days in prison for violating the Public Order Act by organizing a conference in which Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democracy activist, participated via video. (On Monday, in a separate case, Wong pleaded guilty to unauthorized assembly in Hong Kong.)

Upholding Wham’s conviction in that case and dismissing a constitutional challenge to the Public Order Act, the Court of Appeals said that “it is, unfortunately, an inescapable fact of modern life that national politics anywhere are often the target of interference by foreign entities or individuals who are promoting their own agendas.”

And in March, Wham spent a week in prison for contempt of court, after having unfavorably compared the judiciary in Singapore with that of neighboring Malaysia.

Shortly before his first stint in prison this year, Wham posted a message on social media.

“It should never be an offense to speak your truth,” he wrote. “If we can’t speak up, assemble freely, and campaign without looking over our shoulders, the reforms we want can only be done on the terms of those in power.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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