SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A Singapore teenager pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges of spreading obscene images and offending a religious group, but was not required to enter a plea on a harassment charge for comments he made about late former premier Lee Kuan Yew.
Amos Yee, 16, appeared shackled in the Singapore State Courts after his arrest in March for comments he made on social media about Lee, the founding father of modern Singapore, and Christians soon after Lee’s death at 91.
Yee’s case has reignited concerns about censorship and social controls in the Asian financial hub and has drawn criticism from human rights activists.
The packed court included his parents, a youth counselor who has offered to stand bail for him, and Roy Ngerng, another Singapore blogger who is involved in a separate defamation case with Lee’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Yee could face up to three years in jail on the charge of wounding the religious or racial feelings of another person. He has been held on remand since bail was set last week at S$30,000 ($22,610).
He has also been charged under the recently enacted Protection from Harassment Act over a much-viewed Youtube video in which he celebrated the death of Lee, who died in March and was cremated after a state funeral.
However, the prosecution chose not to proceed with the latter charge until after the first two had been dealt with. It can either decide to proceed later or drop the charge entirely, lawyers said.
“If they (go ahead), we will cross that bridge when we get there,” Alfred Dodwell, one of Yee’s lawyers, said of the harassment charge, which carries a fine of up to S$5,000 ($3,770).
Yee’s case has stirred heated debate among Singaporeans about freedom of speech and education. Lee was slapped outside court last week as he made his way in for a preliminary hearing, and a 49-year-old man was later arrested.
Some of Yee’s supporters waited outside the court from early morning. “I’m a Christian. I’m not offended,” said 65-year-old John Loh. “Even if I was, I’d forgive him.”
Reporting by Lee Rou Urn and Rujun Shen; E$diting by Paul Tait