SINGAPORE: Mr Li Shengwu should continue to defend himself in hearings he faces for contempt of court and turn up in court to be cross-examined if he has "nothing to hide", the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said on Thursday (Jan 23).
In response to media queries about Mr Li's announcement on Facebook on Wednesday that he "will not continue to participate" in the case, AGC said the timing of his decision was "significant" as it has applied to cross-examine Mr Li and for him to answer questions on oath.
"If Mr Li has nothing to hide, he should make himself available for cross-examination and answer the questions posed to him on oath," said AGC.
It added that Mr Li's decision not to defend his statement "is a clear acknowledgement that his defence has no merits".
"The reality is that Mr Li is now facing some serious questions in the hearing, and it is obvious that he knows that his conduct will not stand up to scrutiny. He has therefore contrived excuses for running away," said AGC.
Mr Li, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday he would not "dignify the AGC's conduct" by participating in the court case.
Mr Li's case has been ongoing without him being in Singapore, with lawyer Abraham Vergis leading his defence.
It began with a Facebook post in 2017, when Mr Li published a private Facebook post with a link to a New York Times editorial titled Censored in Singapore, and a description saying: “Keep in mind, of course, that the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”.
This post received "wide publicity", said AGC.
"He must have known this would happen, given his status as Mr Lee Kuan Yew's grandson, his inflammatory statement and the timing of his post," it added.
He was asked if he would apologise and withdraw the statement after AGC came to know of the post. It said it made clear to Mr Li that no proceedings would be brought against him if he did as requested.
"But he refused to withdraw his statement, or apologise," AGC said.
"Mr Li’s conduct suggests a sense that he is above the law. That is apparent from his consistent complaint that these proceedings should not have been brought against him at all."
It added that the need to take action against people who make "baseless, contemptuous statements against the Singapore judiciary has long been made clear, from the days of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew".
It pointed out other contempt proceedings it had initiated against people who made similar contemptuous statements against the judiciary.
These include a 2010 case where a British author and former journalist Alan Shadrake was found to be in contempt by referring to the "absence of independence in a compliant judiciary".
AGC RESPONDS TO ALLEGATIONS OF "UNUSUAL CONDUCT"
AGC also responded on Thursday to Mr Li's allegations in his Facebook post that it had applied to strike out and seal parts of his defence affidavit, and that this was part of "a broader pattern of unusual conduct by the AGC".
In response to Mr Li's statement that parts of his defence affidavit were struck out by the court, AGC said this was because his affidavit "contained matters that were scandalous and irrelevant to the issues in the case".
It said such striking out applications are regularly made and provided for in the Rules of Court. The High Court had struck out several parts of the affidavit after hearing full arguments, including from Mr Li's lawyer.
Mr Li did not appeal when told to refile his defence affidavit to comply with the court's order, pointed out AGC.
As for Mr Li's complaint about having papers served on him out of Singapore, AGC said the court had confirmed in April 2019 that he had been validly served. This was after full arguments, including those from Mr Li's lawyer.
"Now, more than nine months later, he rehashes the same complaint," said AGC. "His basic objection is that he should not have been served with the cause papers at all. This is in reality a demand that he be treated differently from all others."
AGC said it had applied to cross-examine Mr Li on his defence affidavit and for him to answer questions on oath about his post.
"Such cross-examination will bring out the truth as to what actually happened, and Mr Li’s intentions in making the post," said AGC.
"The questions he was asked included how many Facebook friends he had at the time of his post and whether they included members of the media.
"This is relevant to the question of whether Mr Li would reasonably have foreseen his post to be published by the media. Mr Li refused to answer these questions. The clear inference is that his answers would have been damaging to his case."
AGC added that Mr Li had stated from as early as August 2017 that he would not be returning to Singapore for the proceedings.
"It is therefore clear that he never intended to come back to Singapore to defend himself, but was using legal representation in the proceedings as a platform to launch baseless allegations against the AGC and others. That strategy failed," said AGC.
The case came amid a wider public feud among the children of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, which has pitted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling. Mr Lee Hsien Yang is Mr Li's father.
CASE CAN PROCEED WITHOUT MR LI IN SINGAPORE: LAWYERS
Lawyers told CNA that the case can proceed even if Mr Li does not return to Singapore for the hearings.
"But only the Attorney-General will submit documents and attend court to argue the case," said lawyer Suang Wijaya, a partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.
He explained that contempt of court is "quasi-criminal", in that proceedings are governed by civil procedure rules rather than criminal ones, but could result in imprisonment or a fine.
"Any litigant may refuse to participate in proceedings, for instance, by not submitting documents, not making any arguments, and not attending court hearings whether in person or with legal representation," said Mr Wijaya.
Lawyer Darren Tan, a director at Invictus Law, said Mr Li could discharge his lawyers and elect to act in person, but not take any further step in proceedings.
He said Mr Li could stay overseas as long as he does not return to Singapore.
"It is highly unlikely that Mr Li will ever be extradited to Singapore to face any penal sanction," he opined.
WARRANT OF ARREST COULD BE ISSUED
Should Mr Li not participate in the case, an order of committal for contempt of court may be obtained against him, said Mr Tan.
This means the AGC succeeds in obtaining a court order stating that Mr Li is found to be in contempt, and a fine or jail term may be imposed.
"But practically nothing will happen if he doesn't set foot in Singapore," said Mr Tan.
Lawyer Amarjit Singh Sidhu, owner of Amarjit Sidhu Law, said that if Mr Li stays overseas and is found to be in contempt, "there may be a warrant of arrest issued".
"When and if he returns to Singapore, he can be placed under arrest," he said.
On the flipside, if Mr Li is found not guilty of contempt, the court has the power to acquit him even without his participation, said Mr Wijaya.
"The court is not entitled to issue a guilty verdict just because he had refused to participate in the proceedings," he explained.
"The court must still consider whether, on the evidence and the arguments presented by the Attorney-General, Li's 2017 Facebook post was (in) contempt."
CNA has contacted Mr Vergis for comment.