Singapore Party Chief Faces Trial

SINGAPORE (AP) -- An opposition figure faces trial for speaking out at the Speakers' Corner.

Chee Soon Juan is the first person charged with breaking the rules at the corner -- the only place in Singapore where it is legal to speak in public without a government permit. The Singapore Democratic Party chief will go on trial July 22, court records showed Wednesday.

Speakers' Corner was hailed by some as a victory for free speech in this tightly controlled city-state, but it does have rules. Speakers must first register at the nearby police station and the topics of race and religion are off limits. So are megaphones and microphones.

Chee has been charged with ``providing public entertainment without a license'' in connection with a speech in February, records show.

Police interrupted Chee's February speech and said he had broken the rules because he discussed religion and race while questioning a government ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools.

Despite several police warnings, Chee kept talking. He was not arrested.

Chee said he would defend himself.

It is not the first time Chee has been in trouble with authorities. He is being sued by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for defamation. Before Speakers' Corner opened in September 2000, Chee spent time in jail for speaking publicly without a permit.

Speaker's Corner opened in a downtown park and is loosely based on London's historic Hyde Park. Some people in Singapore joke and say the local version should be called ``Hide Park.''

A law that allows detention without trial for anyone deemed a threat to public security still applies to speakers at the corner.

If convicted, Chee faces a fine of up to $5,555. Under Singapore law, a fine of more than $1,111 would bar Chee from running in parliamentary elections for five years. Chee unsuccessfully ran in the last elections.

Leaders in the city-state of 4 million people argue that their strict policies help maintain the social and political stability that have made Singapore one of Asia's safest and wealthiest countries.