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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Index On Censorship Award

A big thank you for the very kind and generous congratulatory messages over the past few days.

The Index on Censorship started out as a magazine in 1972. Founded by a group of journalists, writers and artists, the aim of the publication was to provide a platform for views in defence of the freedom of expression. Over the years, it has featured the writings of an impressive list of distinguished writers and thinkers that include Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Noam Chomsky and Umberto Eco (Wikipedia)

Since then it has evolved. As Index says of itself, “Index on Censorship is Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression. Our award-winning magazine and website provide a window for original, challenging and intelligent writing on these vital issues around the world. Our international projects in media, arts and education put our philosophy into action.”

The Index on Censorship launched the Freedom of Expression Awards in 2000 to recognize free expression activity around the world and to honour those who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of free expression. Since 2000, the awards have grown and are now awarded in five categories: New Media (supported by The Economist). Law and Campaigning (supported by Bindmans), Journalism (supported by The Guardian), the Index Film Award and the T R Fyvel Book Award.

The first Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award was initiated in 2007. The award is given to lawyers or campaigners “who have fought repression, or have struggled to change political climates and perceptions. Special attention is given to people using or establishing legal precedents to fight injustice.”

The first recipient of the award was Siphiwe Hlophe, a Swazi activist who co-founded Swazis For Positive Living (Swapol) in 2001 when she was abandoned by her husband and lost an agricultural economics scholarship when she tested positive for HIV. Swapol campaigns against gender discrimination related to HIV/Aids as well as provides assistance to persons living with HIV/Aids

In 2008 it was awarded to U Gambira (pseudonym), the leader of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, which organized and spearheaded the nationwide protests in 2007. He was detained in November 2007 and is still under detention.

I only came to know that I had been nominated and had been shortlisted when an associate alerted me. In the same way, I came to know who it was that had nominated me much later: Peter Noorlander, legal director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, an organisation that works globally to help journalists and small media outlets defend their rights. He was formerly of Article 19, a human rights organization that works around the world to protect and promote the right to free expression. I have had the privilege of collaborating with Peter.

The shortlist for the 2009 Award had three other nominees, all very distinguished in their own right: Gamal Eid (Egypt), Harrison Nkomo (Zimbabwe) and Harry Roque (Phillipines).

The recipient of the award was to be announced at an Awards Dinner held in London on the 21st of April. I could not attend the dinner as I was scheduled for hearings in court through the week. Peter Noorlander was kind enough to represent me and to e-mail me as soon as it was announced (“You won”).

This is how Index describes my selection:

“Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is a leading human rights lawyer and activist and the current president of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM). Imtiaz has been a central figure in fighting lawsuits brought against journalists and bloggers, and was the lead counsel for Raja Petra Kamaruddin, popular blogger and editor of Malaysia Today, whose release he secured last year. In August 2006, a poster declaring him to be a traitor to Islam and calling for his death was circulated in Malaysia. He has proposed setting up an inter-faith council, and spoken in a series of public forums on the need for religious freedom.”

As far as I know the selection was based entirely on an independent assessment of my efforts. I was not contacted by anyone from Index or associated with the awards nor was I requested to submit any materials to the selection panel. It appears however that the panel of judges was acquainted with my body of work.

In conjunction with the event, I was asked to contribute a comment for the Guardian. This was the piece entitled “The Truth About Malaysia” that has been reproduced on various Malaysian soc-pol sites.

As I said in an interview with Deborah Chong of the Malaysian Insider, I am happy to have been nominated and given the award. It presented an opportunity to bring to light the Malaysian situation, one that sadly in the view of dispassionate and objective third parties fits into the parameters of the award.

But then, that should really not come as a surprise, all things considered.

The cause is however one that is worth all the pain and suffering it might entail, a sentiment that I had the opportunity of expressing in the acceptance speech (that Peter was kind enough to read out for me) in this way:

“Being a public interest advocate is at times one of the loneliest things that one can do. Standing up against systemic repression and populist sentiment is not the most popular thing one can do. And yet, it must be done. In the short period that Malaysians stopped doing so, we lost the Rule of Law. The consequences of this failure is the legacy that younger Malaysians have inherited.

The award tonight is a reminder that no matter the specific nature of our respective struggles, the underlying causes are universal. The truths that define us in Malaysia are the same as those that define our friends in Egypt, Zimbabwe, the Phillipines or any other place. We each want to believe that each of our futures is limited only by our ability to dream.”

We must all keep on reaching for the stars. Our futures are written in them.


Translating Policy Into Practice

Translating Policy Into Practice

The media reports that the cabinet has decided that children of marriages where one spouse subsequently embraces Islam would remain in the faith that the parents had agreed on at the time of marriage. The cabinet has also appeared to decide that the civil courts are to dissolve such marriages.

These decisions are welcome ones. They indicate willingness on the part of the administration to deal with issues that have for some time now been studiously avoided, a state of affairs that had prompted the establishment of the coalition of NGOs calling itself “Article 11” and its “Equal Protection For All” campaign in 2006.

The decisions also indicate the policy position of the current administration, one that on its face appears to adhere to the constitutional guarantees of equality and the right of parents to choose the religion of their children. The Constitution guarantees the right of a parent to decide the religious instruction of a minor child. The Constitution provides that words in the singular are to be understood to include the plural, parent being “parents”. By virtue of this and the guarantee against discrimination on grounds of gender, it is clear that the intention was to vest guardianship rights in both parents. This is reinforced by federal law.

I am however uncertain as to how this policy position is to translate into practice as the cabinet has little or no direct power in this regard. Religion is a matter for the state and not the federal government; each state has exclusive authority over the administration of Islam within the boundaries of that state. This would include matters of conversion of children and the jurisdiction of the syariah courts, both of which are matters in respect of which the state legislative assembly has the competence to enact laws on.

Though the constitution itself lends support to the policy position of the cabinet, and as such could be invoked to reign in those state agencies involved in these matters, the question of whether there has been a transgressing of limits is one for the courts. The courts have however in recent years handed down decision after decision that have undermined the constitutional framework and entrenched as principle the very matters that the cabinet now wishes to address.

In 2004, the High Court in Shamala Sathiyaseelan ruled that the converting husband had a right to convert the children into Islam without the consent of the wife. The court also ruled that it had no jurisdiction to entertain the wife’s application to challenge the legitimacy of the conversion. Accepting that the wife was without recourse for not being able to move the syariah court as a non-muslim, the court counseled her to seek the assistance of the Majlis Agama. This is a scenario that the majority decision of the Federal Court in Lina Joy reinforced in 2007

In the same vein, a majority bench of the Federal Court in Subashini Rajasingam concluded in 2008 that either parent could convert a child of the marriage into Islam. It ignored the non-discrimination guarantee as well as the interpretation provision for words in the singular and focused on the word “parent”, interpreting it to mean “parent” in the singular. The majority also decided that the muslim party was free to commence proceedings in the syariah court even though the non-muslim party was entitled to seek dissolution and maintenance and custody orders in the High Court.

These decisions and others like them stand in the way of the cabinet implementing its policy position. It is ironic that the decisions noted above were largely the result of ill conceived and shortsighted positions taken by the Attorney General’s Chambers on these matters, positions that sought to denude the High Court of jurisdiction to allow for the preservation of an unjust status quo.

To move forward, the cabinet must therefore take the bull by the horns.

I assume that the cabinet made its decisions based on advice from the Attorney General. It is therefore imperative that the Attorney General articulates his revised position on these issues in the courts as soon as possible. The Shamala case comes before the Court of Appeal on Monday and he should apply to intervene to make the necessary points. Being matters of great constitutional significance that are clearly in the public interest, they warrant his involvement.

(Malay Mail; 24th April 2009)


Friday, April 17, 2009

Adapting To The Times

Adapting To The Times

Proponents of the Internal Security Act justify their viewpoint by reference to the need for law to enable the authorities to deal with threats to national security. In principle, there is nothing objectionable with that position. As I explain below, the Federal Constitution allows for the enacting of laws to that end.

The shape these laws take, however, depends on the nature of the threat that is sort to be addressed and the measures needed for that purpose. These features inform any discussion concerning the relevance, if at all, of laws that allow for detention without trial under our constitutional framework.

There is no general power in Parliament to validly enact laws that contravene the fundamental liberties guaranteed under the Constitution. That is why the Criminal Procedure Code has crystallized in the form it has, obliging the police to produce an arrested person before a magistrate within twenty-four hours of arrest. If the police want to keep that person in custody without charging him or her for a further period of time to allow for further investigation, they have to convince a magistrate of the need for this extension.

Where the offence being investigated is punishable by death or with imprisonment of more than fourteen years, the magistrate can order a further detention of up to seven days with it being open to the police to seek a further seven days thereafter. Where the offence is punishable with imprisonment of less than fourteen years, the maximum period of further detention is seven days, in stages of four and three days respectively.

The rationale is that the individual being investigated should be charged as soon as possible or be let go, the thinking being that if after that many days as is permitted the police have got no basis to charge, then continued detention is not justifiable. The individual can be rearrested subsequently if more evidence surfaces and then charged, but unless and until that occurs, he is entitled to liberty. If charged, the accused then has the benefit of all the safeguards of the criminal justice system the most important of which is a trial.

That is what the guarantee against the denial of life and liberty “save in accordance with law” means.

There is however a constitutionally entrenched exception to this general rule. Parliament can enact laws that circumvent the guarantees of liberty and associated guarantees to deal with the threat of action by a substantial body of persons that aims to destabilize the nation or undermine democracy.

The ISA was enacted using this exceptional power. The “substantial body of persons” concerned was the communist insurgent army whose actions had led to concerns about the security of the nation and its way of life. That is what made its enacting valid; it was a necessary means to disenfranchising the insurgents and preventing them from regrouping. The criminal justice system might have impeded efforts to deal with the insurgents effectively.

We tend to overlook the obvious truth that solutions must be crafted to suit the problems they are intended to solve. The ISA was designed to a particular end. It was never intended to define the upper limits of executive action where national security was concerned. It was never meant to be the yardstick.

There is no difficulty with invoking the criminal justice system to deal with individuals who are not affiliated to a larger body of persons, be they terrorists or the organizers of demonstrations or socio-political bloggers, no matter how convenient preventive detention may be.

This is not a matter of preference; it is the law.

If a crime has been committed, let the accused be tried. If no crime has been committed, then there is no basis for circumventing constitutional freedoms unless the nation itself is threatened.

For those who fear the uncertain, an anti-terror legislation will allow us to deal with actual national security concerns effectively. This law could be of a hybrid nature, applying general principles of criminal law for those acts of terrorism that do not fall within the constitutional exception but at the same time allowing for exceptional steps to be taken where the terrorism concerned does. The aim of these exceptional steps should be to deal with a clear and present danger and not to substitute criminal due process with executive whimsy. Detention periods should as such be of very limited duration, if a crime has been committed there should be a trial, and be made subject to strict judicial scrutiny. This would encourage less sloppy policing and lead to greater security.

Do we really need the ISA? With the range of more effective options available to us in this day and age, I do not think so.

(Malay Mail; 17th April 2007)


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Into The Depths

Moments in history leave their imprints on destiny. Actions translate into consequences.

I have often wondered what it is that was running through the minds of those who triggered Operasi Lalang on that fateful 27th of October 1987. They were about to trigger a chain of events that would put this nation on a collision course with its very foundations. They were about to cast the perspectives and attitudes of a generation of Malaysians who would in turn shape those of another.

Racialism, fear and loathing, supremacist beliefs; a belief in the right of might.

On October 27th, 1987, 106 persons were detained. They were mainly politicians and political activists. Their absence left a gash in our democracy through which ideals and principles were sucked out into nothingness.

In the General Election of 1986, the Opposition held 28 seats. Of these, the DAP held twenty-four seats. PAS held one.

Five DAP Members of Parliament, amongst them the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Lim Kit Siang, the then Deputy Chairman of the party, Mr Karpal Singh, Mr Lim Guan Eng and the indomitable V David. Four DAP assemblymen were also detained and a host of civil society activists.

The opposition was emasculated.

On 28th October 1987, Lee Lam Thye attempted to move an urgent motion to debate the detentions. The speaker rejected his request, basing his decision on the Prime Minister having given notice that he was presenting a statement on the subject. This excerpt from the Hansard report of the proceedings of that day captures the essence of the Prime Ministe’s address.

Tuan Yang di-Pertua, kita semua masih ingat peristiwa 13 Mei, 1969. Tentulah tidak ada di antara kita yang suka mencetuskan rusuhan berdarah seperti itu sekali lagi. Oleh itu, sikap tidak bertanggungjawab dan kegiatan menjolok isu-isu yang sensitif sepatutnya tidak berlaku.

Walau bagaimanapun, pihak Polis yang sepanjang masa memerhati dan meneliti perkembangan politik dan lain-lain gerak-geri rakyat, mendapati bahawa ada pihak-pihak tertentu yang tidak menghargai sikap Kerajaan. Mereka sebaliknya menggunakan peluang daripada pendirian Kerajaan ini untuk memperalatkan isu-isu sensitif untuk kepentingan mereka dan dalang-dalang mereka. Mereka tidak mempedulikan kesan buruk akibat daripada sikap tidak bertanggung- jawab ini.

Tuan Yang di-Pertua, pihak Polis mendapati bahawa beberapa tokoh pemimpin parti Pembangkang dan kumpulan-kumpulan yang sebulu dengan mereka telah dengan sengaja membesar-besarkan isu yang ada kaitan dengan kaum. Pihak DAP khususnya, terlalu memainkan isu-isu perkauman Cina dan lndia secara terbuka. Mereka memberi gambaran hahawa Kerajaan menindas kaum-kaum ini. Mereka mengadakan rapat-rapat umum, mesyuarat awam, rally, demonstrasi dan lain-lain kegiatan untuk membakar hati orang-orang Cina dan lndia terhadap Kerajaan dan terhadap orang-orang Melayu.

Tuan Yang di-Pertua. pihak Polis mendapati bahawa pemimpin-pemimpin parti DAP amat gemar menggunakan isu-isu yang berbau pcrkauman untuk mendapat sokongan bagi parti mereka. Mereka bukan sahaja herlagak sebagai juara kaum Cina dan India, tetapi juga sengaja mencabar parti-parti kaum Cina dan lndia dalam Kerajaan kerana kononnya tidak memperjuangkan kepentingan kaum-kaum mereka. Dengan ini maka parti kaum Cina dan lndia dalam Kerajaan pun melenting dan cuba pula untuk melebihi parti DAP dalam ketebalan perkauman mereka.

Usaha menjadi jaguh ini meningkat apabila DAP dapat mengalahkan beberapa calon dari parti Cina dalam Barisan Nasional dalam Pilihanraya 1986. DAP sengaja mengejek parti Cina dalam Barisan Nasional sebagai "running dogs" parti UMNO. Dengan ini maka semakin bertambahlah usaha parti Cina dan India dalam Barisan Nasional untuk membuktikan bahawa mereka juga kuat dari segi perkauman bahkan lebih kuat lagi daripada DAP dan pemimpin-pemimpinnya. Berbagai isu dijadikan asas ujian tentang siapa lebih kuat perkaumannya. Beberapa daripada isu-isu ini amat sensitif termasuk soal tarian singa, soal koperasi, soal papan tanda dan iklan, soal bahasa Cina, soal Bukit Cina, soal pakaian, soal ikrar murid di sekolah, soal matapelajaran elektif di Universiti Malaya, KBSR, soal pribumi Bumiputera dan akhir- ahkir ini soal guru sekolah Cina. Satu perbuatan yang amat bahaya ialah penggunaan kuil untuk mesyuarat perkauman.

Dalam usaha-usaha yang dibuat sewaktu membincangkan isu-isu ini, banyak kata-kata kesat yang boleh ditakrif sebagai hasutan; disuarakan dengan lantang. Reaksi daripada orang Melayu juga meningkat kerana sebab-sebab yang tersebut sehingga ke peringkat yang melampaui batas. Semua ini dilaporkan oleh akhbar- akhbar dan majalah-majalah dan media massa ini juga semakin berani…

The Prime Minister’s address received approval from all the Barisan Nasional Members of Parliament present. Not one of those MP’s expressed concern.

The stage having been set for greater executive control, and taking advantage of a weakened opposition and a media lock down, laws were enacted to stifle expression. Amongst them was the constitutional amendment to Article 121(1) of the Federal Constitution that suborned the Judiciary to Parliament, the jurisdiction of the former being a matter that from that point on became a matter of federal law. On the heels of that amendment, came the amendments to the ISA that precluded judicial review. The Printing Presses and Publications Act was amended to vest a subjective discretion in the Minister to suspend or shut down publications. The Police Act was amended to enhance the power of the police to regulate public assemblies.

The Judiciary was assaulted, a new brand of justice given life to. Democracy was taken hostage.

All of this while the leadership of the Opposition was in Kemunting for conduct that was said to be wholly destabilizing of the nation. None of those detained were ever charged for any crime. Some of them are still in Parliament or serving the nation in other capacities.

The message that the Mahathir Administration sent in 1987 has been the single biggest obstacle to developing a sustainable and inclusive foundation for this nation. We still suffer its familiar strains. We still struggle against fear.

Intimidation can never be a tool for nation building; it carries the imprimatur of autocracies. Unity can never be decreed, it is a heartfelt condition.

Malaysia can only be one when this government recognizes that the chain of consequences that emanated from that day in October, 1987 have us all in a stranglehold; its weight threatens to pull us down into the depths of oblivion.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Finishing Point

Finishing Point

The Internal Security Act has no place in the modern society that Malaysia is. It was designed for a very different time and purpose. As Tun Abdul Razak emphasized in Parliament in 1960 when questioned by a very concerned Opposition as to the purpose of the then pending bill, it was intended only to address the threat to democracy that the Communist insurgency was.

As Malaysians learnt the hard way, it was used for more than that. It became the weapon of choice of politicians who were not averse to prioritizing their personal interests over those of the nation.

The populist gesture of releasing detainees by newly minted Prime Ministers underscores this point. Prime Ministers not having the prerogatives of Kings, there is no basis for benevolent munificence on their part. They are, like the rest of us, expected to act according to the law. The release of detainees is as such intended to reflect a departure from the policy positions of the previous administration and in this, the ISA invoked as a symbol of wrong to showcase a willingness to embrace what is right. The gesture as such proves the injustice that the ISA is.

In fairness, the gesture this time has come with a twist, the promise of a review. Though it is not clear what this means or even that it will occur, the Prime Minister must be given the benefit of the doubt. His concession has vindicated the movement against the continued existence and use of the statute. It also presents a useful opportunity to consider what it is that must be done and why it should be.

There have been numerous objective and careful studies conducted on the ISA by various interested parties. All of these have pointed to a need to review the law, some even going so far as to suggest a repeal of the statute. The essential point made is that the ISA is not consistent with guarantees of civil liberties under Malaysian and international law. The Government has consistently disregarded these suggestions and in justifying itself has pointed to the courts having validated the ISA and actions taken under it, and the need for anti-terror legislation.

Judicial decisions of the apex court have however been formulaic and shaped by an uninspiring view of liberty, more so since 1989 when judicial review was precluded by way of an amendment to the ISA. The quality of some of these decisions is also suspect, the conclusions drawn questionable.

For a successful review, a new approach must as such be adopted. This must be grounded on an acceptance of the immutable truth that our civil liberties are guaranteed in the widest sense and that government must be in accordance wit the Rule of Law.

The power to enact laws that impinge on these liberties can only be used sparingly and in a very narrow compass. Actions taken under these laws must be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny. Terrorism can be dealt with effectively without undue compromise of freedoms; societies across the world are doing just that using appropriately crafted anti-terror laws.

There is no point to a review if the Government wishes to preserve an unfettered power to detain at will. This must be the starting point of any discussion on the subject. If accepted, it will also be the finishing point: the ISA must be repealed.

(Malay Mail; 10th April 2009)


(Disquiet in the Malay Mail is now published on Fridays)