Human rights activist Jolovan Wham walked out of the State Courts in central Singapore on Nov. 30, 2017, to a gaggle of reporters and photographers. It was a typically warm tropical morning, and people had been getting restless, waiting for the authorities to process his bail and release him. He greeted friends, mostly fellow activists.* Plainclothes police officers watched quietly from a distance but did not approach.

The day before, the Singaporean authorities had announced that Wham would be charged with three counts of organizing public assemblies without permits, one count of vandalism, and three counts of refusing to sign statements to the police. The assembly charges were for allegedly organizing a forum on civil movements and democracy, staging an eight-person silent protest against detention without trial on a subway train, and holding a candlelight vigil ahead of a death row inmate’s...

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