The little publicised decision of the International Bar Association, perhaps the world’s preeminent legal confederation, to hold its 2007 annual convention in Singapore is drawing fire from critics who say the island state’s courts are among the least independent in the world.

In a 13 February letter protesting the IBA’s decision to take its convention to Singapore, Chee Soon Juan, the head of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, who has been repeatedly sued for defamation, bankrupted and driven from politics by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in the Singapore courts, quoted Subhas Anand, the president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, as saying that “he would represent murderers, thieves and even terror suspects but would avoid acting for dissidents in Singapore.”

On its website, the bar association says it “believes in the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary and for judges and lawyers to practice freely and without interference.” The IBA’s Human Rights Institute was established under the honorary presidency of former South African President Nelson Mandela, once the world’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Chee added that “scores of (members of) opposition parties, trade unions, universities and media were… locked up for various periods, many for as long as 15 to 20 years, and were, according to Amnesty International, tortured and abused.”

The Lee family and other officials have repeatedly used the Singapore courts to go after political opponents and the international press in cases that most observers believe would be laughed out of almost any other court in the free world.

“I can’t believe these people could be going there,” said Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, noting in an interview the worrying fact that increasing numbers of countries across Asia are taking their cues from Singapore to sue reporters for defamation in an attempt to prevent them from reporting independently.

The IBA represents some 30,000 individual lawyers and more than 195 Bar Associations through a dual membership structure. It professes to “influence the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession,” according to its website.