Teen blogger Amos Yee is finally a free man in the United States after a three-member panel at the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled unanimously to grant him asylum, making him the first Singaporean in years to receive political refuge in the West.
Yee was first granted asylum in March this year after an immigration judge found that “Singapore’s prosecution of Yee was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government.” The US Department of Homeland Security appealed against this decision, arguing that the judge had made errors of both fact and law.
In a decision dated September 21 and released by Yee’s lawyers on Tuesday, the Board of Immigration Appeals concurred with the immigration judge’s findings 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.”
“I’m really shocked because I didn’t expect it,” the 18-year-old told Asia Times. “They suddenly told me to pack up my stuff. I didn’t have any prior warning before, so right now I’m really shocked.”
“I was surprised and relieved because he has been in detention for over nine months and we were of the view that he would be detained longer,” said Shelley Thio, a Singaporean activist who has long been involved in supporting Yee.
“I hope that with the continued support from his kind and compassionate US supporters, Amos will thrive and have opportunities in a country which shares his belief that it is the right to freely express oneself without fear of persecution.”
It has been over nine months since Yee was first detained after arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in mid-December 2016. He was released from a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in downtown Chicago on Tuesday afternoon US time.
Although Yee had been eligible for release since the March ruling, the authorities had chosen not to release him while the Department of Homeland Security’s appeal was pending.
“[W]e decry ICE’s decision to detain Mr. Yee, especially after his asylum case was granted and after DHS made no arguments, nor presented evidence, that Yee is a threat to national security or to the public,” said his pro-bono lawyers at Grossman Law LLC in a press statement issued ahead of his release.
“The United States should comply with its obligations to protect those who are unable to return to their home countries. Grossman Law calls on ICE and the administration to revisit its detention policies and condemns the prolonged detention of those fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the United States.”
Although it is still possible for the Department of Homeland Security to appeal the decision, Yee’s lawyers say that the Board’s “unambiguous decision” makes such a scenario unlikely.
Yee became a household name in Singapore in 2015 when he was arrested for publishing a rant on YouTube shortly after the death of the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The expletive-laden video was largely focused on criticizing Lee and his legacy, with some unflattering references made to Jesus and Christianity.
Yee also published a blog post with a drawing of two stick figures—with the faces of Lee and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher superimposed—engaging in anal sex.
The case resulted in Yee being remanded for over 50 days, including a stint at the Institute of Mental Health for psychiatric evaluation. He was later convicted.
He landed in hot water once more in 2016 when he was again found guilty for wounding religious feelings with social media and blog posts commenting on Christianity and Islam. He was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and given a S$2,000 (US$1,379) fine for ignoring a notice issued by the police to present himself for questioning.
Yee told Asia Times that he would spend a few days in Chicago with friends before moving on to a more permanent residence.
“The plan is to immediately continue making my videos and managing my Facebook profile, kind of what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years as a kind of entertainer-slash-political commentator,” he said, adding that the thing he is now “most eager” to do is log on to the Internet.
The Singapore government has not yet responded to the appeal outcome, but has previously rebutted accusations of oppression and persecution.
While human rights groups and activists have described Yee’s prosecutions as instances of Singapore’s suppression of free speech, the government has insisted both cases were about hate speech and the preservation of religious harmony in the tiny multi-racial, multi-religious nation.
“It is the prerogative of the US to take in such people who engage in hate speech. There are many more such people, around the world, who deliberately engage in hate speech, and who may be prosecuted. Some of them, will no doubt take note of the US approach, and consider applying for asylum in the US,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in response to the March ruling.
The initial decision by the US immigration judge had been met with derision by the Singaporean establishment, with Sunil Sudheesan, President of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, expressing outrage at the finding that Yee—who he described as an “antisocial miscreant”—had been persecuted.
Sudheesan did not bother mincing his words in his letter to local broadsheet The Straits Times: “If America wants this misguided recalcitrant, it can have him.”