Bread. 3 December 2007
Who shall watch the Watchmen?
In July this year, a young man died after being attacked at a park near
26-year-old Satender Singh (photo at right), who was originally from Fiji, was at Lake Natoma Park on 1 July 2007 with 3 married Indian couples around his age. Two picnic tables away was a group of Russian-speaking immigrants who noticed that Singh was delicate and dateless and who, according to numerous witnesses, were soon harassing Singh and his friends, calling them "7-Eleven workers" and "Sodomites."
This continued for a while, with racial and ethnic slurs directed at the Fijian Indian group, and homosexual slurs directed at Singh. The Slavic men bragged about belonging to a Russian evangelical church and told Singh that he should go to a "good church" like theirs.
According to Singh's friends, the harassers sent their wives and children home, then used their cell phones to summon several more Slavic men. The members of Singh's party, which included a woman six months pregnant, became afraid and around 8 pm, prepared to leave.
Andrey Vusik and Aleksandr Schevchenko demanded an apology from Singh, which Singh refused to give. Vusik then threw a cup of beer into the face of a member of Singh’s group, and threw one punch at Singh, hitting him in the face. Singh fell over backwards, hitting his head on the concrete ground. The assailants drove off in a green sedan and red sports car, hurling bottles at Singh's friends to prevent them from jotting down the license plate number. Singh suffered a brain hemorrhage and was declared clinically brain dead the following day. His family agreed to remove him from artificial life support on 5 July.
Vusik soon fled the US, apparently to somewhere in the ex-Soviet Union, leaving his wife and children in Sacramento. A charge of manslaughter hangs over him. Schevchenko was arrested and his trial is in progress. 
The attitudes behind this assault fit a disturbing new phenomenon -- that of a virulently anti-gay movement drawn from Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking immigrants to the US. Some of them have organised themselves into a group by the name of Watchmen on the Walls -- a biblical reference from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, in which the "watchmen" guard the reconstruction of a ruined Jerusalem. The present-day Watchmen see themselves as standing guard over civilisation, which they claim is being destroyed by homosexuality.
In a 2003 letter published in the Washington Times, Scott Lively, a longtime anti-gay activist who is now the chief international envoy for the Watchmen movement wrote: "The homosexual movement in a society is analogous to the AIDS virus in the human body." 
The Watchmen portray the battle against gay rights as nothing less than a biblical clash of civilisations. "No clear-thinking person believes that the homosexual sexual ethic and that of the family-based society can peacefully coexist," Lively wrote. "One must prevail at the expense of the other."
With reference to the above-mentioned death of Singh, Vlad Kusakin, the Sacramento-based editor of a Russian-language newspaper called The Speaker, tried to paint themselves as the victims or persecution, comparing law enforcers and the gay community to the Nazi regime. He said: "To our sorrow, this incident is used to suppress Christians. This reminds me of Nazi Germany." 
There hasn't been clear proof that Vusik and Schevchenko belonged to this movement. However, a clue emerged in a reply that Andrey Vusik's wife gave to the newspaper, The Sacramento Bee. Insisting that her husband acted in self defence against Singh's provocative dancing, she said, as if it excused everything: "We are a Christian family."
In the Sacramento region alone, there are roughly 80,000 and 100,000 Slavic immigrants, the highest concentration in the United States, and the city is home to some 70 Russian fundamentalist congregations. Ironically, many of them emigrated to the United States beginning in the late 1980s to escape religious persecution in what was then still part of the Soviet Union, but in their adopted country have become persecutors themselves.
At the same time, nearly 10% of the actual city of Sacramento's 450,000 residents openly identify as gay or lesbian, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the US, only a few other cities, e.g. San Francisco , New York and Seattle, boast higher percentages of openly gay and lesbian residents.
The Watchmen on the Walls do not confine their activities to the US. For two years in a row, they have sent agitators to Russia and Latvia (formerly part of the ex-Soviet Union) to lead anti-gay rallies where gays and lesbians are pelted with bags of excrement. Yawning Bread met 2 lesbian activists from Latvia recently who had personally experienced such attacks. Their organisation Mozaika's office was also ransacked.
During question time in a talk given recently (see Enforcing racial and religious harmony) a participating law academic Michael Hor noted how speech aggravated with religion can be divided into a number of categories:
1. Religious group/person against another
(One might add the possibility of a fifth -- the state against a religious group -- though we would ordinarily see a government-sanctioned pogrom as something quite separate from hate speech, unacceptable though it may also be.)
Hor's point was that Singapore's newly beefed up laws against hate speech -- sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code -- deal only with (1) and (2) above.
Our Sedition Act deals with (4).
We have nothing to deal with (3), i.e. a religious group or person inciting hate against a non-religious group, which I think is a serious blind spot, and as the above story illustrates, is entirely foreseeable.
What about laws for hate crimes e.g. what befell
Hate crimes -- as distinct from hate speech -- are dealt with through upping the sentence for whatever crime has been committed. In other words, where a person might get X years in jail for causing grievous hurt, for example, he would get a sentence one and half times X if his assault was aggravated by hostility towards the victim's race or religion. This is the provision in the new Section 74 of the Penal Code.
The Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee made this point very clear in a recent speech in Parliament:
His final sentence, bragging about how our laws are similar to other developed countries, made me a little suspicious (I tend to get suspicious when our government brags). Naturally, I did a web search, and found a number of interesting features from the UK's laws which are absent from ours.
Further down the Crown Prosecution Service's website, it explains that in British law, "race" should be interpreted broadly. Thus,
As I recorded in my earlier essay, law academics in Singapore did not think such a broad interpretation was likely in our Penal Code s.298 and s.298A. They also didn't think that agnostics and atheists were protected from hate speech in Singapore, considering the way our law has been worded.
In contrast, in the UK, the
Crown Prosecution Service advised that
The relevant laws in the UK are the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The latter provides increases in sentence for racially and religiously aggravated offences, and offences aggravated by the sexual orientation or disability of the victim.
While I'm not a lawyer, the above seems to suggest that a crime motivated by both race and sexual orientation (i.e. what happed to Satender Singh) is to be considered as doubly aggravated. Perhaps a reader who knows law can advise.
Coming back to Ho Peng Kee's statement in Parliament, why, with these examples of comprehensive laws from abroad, did Singapore choose not to follow suit? After all, we are infamous for having any number of broadly-worded driftnet laws that catch everything (especially activities potentially anti-government) leaving it only to the discretion of the prosecutor to pursue. Why, in the matter of hate speech and hate crimes, are we so parsimonious in its scope?
© Yawning Bread