Singaporean teenager Amos Yee, who has been held in a Chicago jail since mid-December pending a political asylum bid, could find himself remaining behind bars until March, his lawyer said on Tuesday after an initial court hearing.
If the 18-year-old is detained until his next court hearing – scheduled for March 7 – he would have spent almost as many days in an American jail as the total prison time he served in Singapore for various offences linked to his online commentary.
Yee is seeking asylum in the United States because of the punishment he faced in Singapore, which he deems to be aimed at curbing his dissenting views on the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
He served two jail stints – 53 days in 2015 and three weeks in 2016 – for denigrating religion and insulting the country’s late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew on his blog and on social media.
“It is up to Immigration and Customs Enforcement whether they will release him [before the court date],” Sandra Grossman, Yee’s US-based pro bono lawyer, told This Week in Asia.
“We will renew our request to them today. There is no timeline as to when they might make a decision. If he is released, he will be taken off the more expedient detained docket, and his hearing could be several years from now,” she said.
Grossman said the teenager was in a “positive state of mind” when he appeared before a Chicago court on Monday via video link and formally submitted his asylum application.
Yee is currently being held at the McHenry County Jail outside Chicago, a facility that houses people detained by US immigration officials.
“He has been treated well in immigration detention but, of course, is ready to leave jail and begin rebuilding his life in the US,” Grossman said.
An individual hearing on the teenager’s asylum application will be held on March 7.
Yee was detained at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on December 16 after he told immigration officials he was seeking asylum. He had entered the country on a tourist visa.
Yee’s lawyer said he was eligible for asylum as “he is persecuted because of his critical political opinion and because he is an online dissident”.
She however acknowledged that his asylum bid could be encumbered by US President Donald Trump’s latest immigration order, which temporarily bars the door to refugees.
The move, which includes a temporary ban on entry by all citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, has been widely criticised by the international community.
“Amos is applying for asylum at a time in the United States when our core values are being challenged by our own administration,” Grossman said.
“[But] unlike the hapless refugees who are currently being kept out of the US, because Amos is here, he has a right to due process,” she added.
The Maryland-based lawyer said she had “faith in the independence of our judges” despite Trump’s actions, which she deemed “not only un-American but unlawful”.
Yee’s claim of being politically persecuted has been rebuffed by Singaporean officials.
The PAP has long defended imposing certain restrictions on the freedom of speech in Singapore, measures it says are needed to maintain stability in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.