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Singapore Fines Defendants Over Paper’s Opinion Piece : Asia: Island nation said an article by American brought its courts into ill repute. Decision is likely to renew acrimony in ties with United States.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case likely to cause renewed acrimony between the United States and Singapore, a judge on Tuesday convicted an American scholar and senior executives of a U.S.-owned newspaper of contempt of court for publishing an article critical of the way some Asian governments suppress political opposition.

The chief target of the prosecution, university lecturer Christopher Lingle, was fined nearly $7,000 for writing the article, but he is unlikely ever to be punished. A former senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, Lingle left the country in October after being interviewed twice by the police. He has refused to return.

Also convicted in the case were Michael Richardson, an Australian who is the Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune; Richard A. McClean, publisher and chief executive of the newspaper; the newspaper’s Singapore subsidiary, which distributes the paper, and Singapore Press Holdings, which prints the newspaper in Southeast Asia.

Richardson was fined $3,500, McClean was fined $1,750, and the distributor and printer were each fined $1,050 for their parts in publishing the article.

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The International Herald Tribune is jointly owned by the New York Times and the Washington Post and circulates throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.

In a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta, Lingle said he was relieved that no jail sentences were imposed on the defendants who remained behind in Singapore. When asked if he intended to pay the $7,000 fine, he said: “In my case, it seems that I’ve paid enough. This fiasco has cost me my job, my livelihood and has imposed other costs to me already.”

He added that the case proves that the Singapore government “is overly sensitive to criticism.”

In a statement read to reporters after the court hearing, Tribune Publisher McClean said the newspaper did not realize that the criticism could be taken as a reference to Singapore and that the paper “never intended” to attack the Singapore judiciary.

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“The International Herald Tribune, as the leading daily international paper, sees the publication of opinion pieces reflecting all points of view as an important part of its role,” he said. “But it recognizes it has to have regard to the laws of the countries in which it circulates.”

In addition to the contempt charges, the newspaper faces a libel suit filed by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over the same article. It is also believed to have settled a separate libel suit filed by Lee over another opinion piece last year.

In dispute was a single passage in the Lingle article, which he offered to the newspaper’s opinion page in response to a scathing criticism of Europe by Singapore’s permanent secretary of foreign affairs, Kishore Mahbubani.

Lingle listed various methods that he said Asian regimes use to crush dissent, from deploying tanks to what he called more subtle approaches. Without naming any country, he said these include “relying upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt politicians, or buying out enough of the opposition to take control ‘democratically.’ ”

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The government maintained that the accusation of a compliant judiciary being used to bankrupt politicians could only refer to Singapore’s justice system.

While it acknowledges that government officials have a history of suing opposition politicians, it argues that those cases were decided on their merits and not because of a “subtle scheme” involving the judiciary.

The Lingle controversy follows nearly a year of strained relations with the United States that began when an American teen-ager named Michael Fay was sentenced to be flogged for vandalizing cars.


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