Singapore has charged opposition party leaders with an illegal procession and assembling without a permit just days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the city-state would ease a ban on outdoor public demonstrations.
The Singapore Democratic Party said seven of its members were charged, including party chairman Gandhi Ambalam, general-secretary Chee Soon Juan and his sister, Chee Siok Chin. The party's leaders denied the charges in court on Thursday, while one member pleaded guilty to illegally distributing pamphlets, it said.
"The charges that we face are in complete violation of our basic rights to freedoms of speech, assembly and expression," Ambalam said in a statement on the party's Web site.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's office was not available for comment.
The charges, which carry a maximum fine of 1,000 Singapore dollars (US$712) each, stem from a protest against poverty in Singapore at a 2006 meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Demonstrations in Singapore by five or more people must be approved by police.
It was not clear why the government waited about two years to bring the charges.
"The so-called offenses were supposed to have been committed some two years ago," Ambalam told the court, according to the statement. "It's strange that in our unique Singapore it has taken the authorities such a long time to bring us before you."
Lee said Monday that Singapore will allow public demonstrations at a "Speakers' Corner" where citizens are already allowed to air grievances, as long as they don't discuss race, language or religion. Lee did not specify what he meant by public demonstrations and it was not clear what additional freedoms people would be granted.