Democracy behind bars: A look at the cases of 5 jailed Asean leaders
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Democracy behind bars: A look at the cases of 5 jailed Asean leaders

OVER recent decades, Asean countries have made moderate headway in maturing as democracies set against the backdrop of growing economies, dissipation of wide-scale violence, and concerted efforts to stabilise the region.

But despite the unanimous decision to support a 2012 declaration, where Southeast Asian leaders agreed human rights and democracy were engines of progress, the question as to whether its governments have been sluggish in adopting the principles of freedom of speech and expression remains.

Often times, their countries are swamped with accusations of authoritarianism by their Western counterparts.

And with many opposition leaders and activists currently sentenced to prison – for varying reasons, of course – it is little wonder why human rights groups and advocates have been hot on the heels of the governments over alleged abuse of power and politically motivated prosecutions.

With that in mind, the Asian Correspondent has come up with a list of prominent leaders who have been sentenced to years of imprisonment.

1. The Philippines


In 2016, Senator Leila De Lima led a Senate probe into alleged summary killings during President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drugs campaign but has since been detained on charges of involvement in the drugs trade in prisons when she was justice minister in the previous administration.

De Lima, who is known as Duterte’s staunchest critic, says the charges are trumped up and has long asserted that the charges are “politically motivated”.

She also insists there is no doubt there was sufficient cause to file an international criminal case for crimes against humanity against Duterte, his police chief Ronald Dela Rosa and senior politicians and civil servants.

The incarcerated leader maintains that Duterte’s goal to put her in jail since she publicly criticised his controversial war on drugs.


2. Malaysia


Sixty-seven-year-old Anwar was once Malaysia’s deputy prime minister under Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, but the influential politician had a fallout with the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) over allegations of corruption and sodomy which led to his imprisonment in the late ’90s.

After being released from prison, Anwar staged a political comeback in 2013 as the de facto leader of the People’s Justice Party which ran against the ruling coalition. Although the Opposition did not command the majority of the 222 parliamentary constituencies, the bloc won the popular vote.

In 2014, Anwar was faced with fresh allegations of sodomy and was subsequently jailed for five years. Until today, Anwar maintains that the charges were politically motivated. He is expected to be released in June this year under a one-third remission of his prison sentence and at the discretion of the Prisons Department director-general.


3. Indonesia


In May 2016, Jakarta’s former governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was sentenced to two years in jail under Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy law. He was convicted of insulting the Quran when an edited video of him speaking at a rally surfaced on YouTube. The man responsible for the misleading editing was sentenced to 18 months’ jail in November for violating a section of the country’s cyber law.

Renowned publication Foreign Policy named Ahok a global influencer for his ability “not just to rethink our strange new world, but also to reshape it.”

Since taking office in 2012, he became Indonesia’s “most prominent symbol of Indonesia’s beleaguered ethnic and religious pluralism.” As Muslim-majority Indonesia’s first Christian governor of Chinese descent, Ahok is recognised as a polarising figure.


4. Cambodia


The leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) – which was disbanded by the country’s Supreme Court at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government – was arrested in a Sept 3 midnight raid on his home in Phnom Penh on charges of conspiring with foreign actors in leading an anti-government protest in 2014. At the time of this writing, Kem Sokha is in detention awaiting the outcome of his trial. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

The United States and various other governments have called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to release Kem Sokha. In an open letter to Hun Sen’s government, more than 150 members of parliament from 23 countries, including the US, Malaysia, Canada, Indonesia, South Africa, Germany and the United Kingdom, said they were “extremely concerned” over treason charges laid against Kem Sokha after he was arrested and detained.


5. Thailand


Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is currently living in exile abroad, but her fate behind bars is almost certain if she was to return to her home country.

Yingluck, whose administration was overthrown by the junta in 2014, was sentenced to five years’ jail in September after being found guilty of negligence for the mismanagement of a billion dollar rice subsidy scheme.

Yingluck dramatically fled the country a month before the sentencing, thus failing to show up at court for the verdict. In January, she was said to have been in London since September, where her brother Thaksin runs a business and owns a residence.

Thaksin – a former prime minister toppled in a 2006 coup – also lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence on corruption charges.