CHICAGO — A teenage blogger from Singapore whose online posts blasting his government landed in him jail was granted asylum to remain in the United States, an immigration judge in Chicago ruled Friday.
Amos Yee has been detained by federal immigration authorities since December when he was taken into custody at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Attorneys said the 18-year-old could be released from a Wisconsin detention centre as early as Monday.
Judge Samuel Cole issued a 13-page decision more than two weeks after Yee's closed-door hearing on the asylum application.
"Yee has met his burden of showing that he suffered past persecution on account of his political opinion and has a well-founded fear of future persecution in Singapore," Cole wrote.
Yee left Singapore with the intention of seeking asylum in the U.S. after being jailed for several weeks in 2015 and 2016. He was accused of hurting the religious feelings of Muslims and Christians in the multiethnic city-state; Yee is an atheist. However, many of his blog and social media posts criticized Singapore's leaders. He created controversy in 2015 as the city-state was mourning the death of its first prime minister and he posted an expletive-laden video about Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew just after his death.
Such open criticism of political leaders is discouraged in Singapore. The case, which raised questions about free speech and censorship, has been closely watched abroad.
Cole said testimony during Yee's hearing showed that while the Singapore government's stated reason for punishing him involved religion, "its real purpose was to stifle Yee's political speech." He said Yee's prison sentence was "unusually long and harsh" especially for his age.
Officials at Singapore's embassy in Washington, D.C., have not addressed the case and messages left for the government on Saturday morning in Singapore weren't immediately returned.
The ruling was praised by others.
"I think this is a major embarrassment for the government, that all along claimed Amos' persecution was not political," Kenneth Jeyaretnam, an opposition politician who gave testimony supporting Yee's asylum, told The Associated Press.
Jeyaretnam said the decision "may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there's nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don't have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out."
His father, the late J.B. Jeyaretnam, attained folklore stature in the country's politics and was bankrupted after contesting a series of lawsuits by the ruling People's Action Party.
PAP has dominated national politics since Singapore's independence in 1965 and its detractors often were taken to court on defamation or other charges.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch applauded the asylum decision and expressed hope the decision would not be appealed.
"Singapore excels at creating a pressure cooker environment for dissidents and free thinkers who dare challenge the political, economic and social diktats from the ruling People's Action Party. It's clear the Singapore government saw Amos Yee as the proverbial nail sticking up that had to be hammered down," said a statement from Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.
Yee's attorney Sandra Grossman said her client was elated with the news.
"He's very excited to begin new life in the United States," Grossman said.
Yee told the AP in a phone interview from jail this month that he feared returning to Singapore. But he said he'd continue to speak out and had already planned a line of T-shirts and started writing a book about his experiences.
"I have an infinite amount of ideas of what to do," he told the AP.
Department of Homeland Security attorneys had opposed the asylum bid, saying Yee's case didn't qualify as persecution based on political beliefs. It was unclear whether they'd appeal the decision or if Yee would have to remain imprisoned if they did. Attorneys have 30 days to appeal.
Officials with DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn't immediately return messages Friday. A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees U.S. immigration courts, declined comment.
Associated Press writer Annabelle Liang in Singapore contributed to this report.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen .
Sophia Tareen, The Associated Press