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US federal appeals court upheld previous judgement to grant Amos Yee asylum over persecution by Singapore government

Singaporean Blogger Amos Yee has been freed from a Chicago Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Tuesday (US time) after a federal appeals court upheld the decision of an immigration judge to grant him asylum based on the grounds of persecution by the Singapore government.

After Yee was earlier detained in December last year when he arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, declaring as a visitor to the country as he had applied for political asylum in US with the help of a US non-government organisation before he flew over to the country, a Chicago immigration judge concluded in March this year that the Singapore government persecuted Yee on account of his political opinion, and that Yee is deserving of asylum as a matter of discretion.

Though Yee was eligible for release but U.S. Department of Homeland Security filed an appeal against the decision to grant Yee asylum. This resulted him to be further detained by US authorities till this Tuesday.

In the appeals court's judgement, the judges wrote,

"We agree with the judge that the cumulative harm in this case rose to the level of persecution, which entitles the applicant to a presumption of a well-founded fear, that has not been rebutted. Because we discern no clear error in the Immigration Judge's findings of fact, and no basis to disturb conclusions of law supporting the grant of asylum, we remand the record for any necessary background and security investigations."

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Back in 2015, Yee hit international headlines just a day after the funeral of Lee Kuan Yew in 2015 by getting arrested for making disparaging remarks on the late founding Prime Minister and couple of references to religion in a Youtube video. He was subsequently convicted of charges put against him and given a four-week jail sentence. Just last year, Yee was again charged in court for allegedly having deliberately posted comments on the Internet that were derogatory of Christianity and Islam. He was sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment and a $2,000 fine.

The immigration judge, Samuel B. Cole had noted in his judgement that Yee's social media posts in Singapore, though undoubtedly offensive to many, do not create any basis to deny asylum as a matter of discretion. He also noted that Yee has met his burden of showing that he suffered past persecution on account of his political opinion and has a well-founded fear of future persecution in Singapore.

Though U.S. Department of Homeland Security actively opposed Yee's application for asylum, claiming that the Singapore government legitimately prosecuted Yee under laws of general applicability. Judge Cole disagreed. In his 13-page written decision, Judge Cole stated that "it is clear" that the Singapore government's criminal prosecution of Yee for "wounding religious feelings" and "obscenity" was "just a pretext to silence his opinions." He stated that the political persecution was a criminal prosecution by the Singapore government and was therefore inflicted by the government.

Relying on the substantial evidence that Yee's pro bono counsel submitted to the Court, Judge Cole wrote that the Singapore government controls the mainstream media and "has enacted legislation to constrain" dissent on social media.

The judge detailed the Singapore government's routine use of sedition laws to arrest and silence online dissidents. Judge Cole concluded that Yee's 2015 arrest and convictions clearly constituted past persecution on account of Yee's political opinion.

Furthermore, Judge Cole argues that Yee's treatment at the hands of the Singapore government rises to the level of persecution. Focusing on his first conviction when Tee was 16 years old, he was arrested at least twice, interrogated, prosecuted, placed on curfew, barred from social media, ordered to take down his social media posts, and finally imprisoned. In total, Yee was incarcerated 55 days between his time in a prison and a mental health facility.

According to Buzzfeed, Yee's lawyer Sandra Grossman said that she was unaware of Yee's immediate plans after his release. Per US law, he will be able to apply for a green card after being in the country for more than a year. Grossman also said it was unlikely that the government would take the case to a higher court to oppose Yee's asylum. "I can imagine that he looks forward to getting back online and expressing his views on a variety of topics including the government of Singapore, his detention in the United States, and possibly any other topic that he wants to discuss," she said.

Freelance journalist Kirsten Han wrote on her Facebook page about Yee telling her that he is still a little in shock, because there had been no prior warning that he would be released. After over nine months in detention, he says he's really missed making videos and being on social media, and that the thing he's "most eager to do right now is go on the Internet.”