Friday, May 24, 2013

Recent Arrests and Actions by the Authorities are a Closing of Democratic Space - Malaysian Bar

Press Release

Recent Arrests and Actions by the Authorities are a Closing of Democratic Space

The Malaysian Bar is appalled by the recent arrests of several individuals pursuant to the Sedition Act 1948.  The Sedition Act, as with its predecessor the Sedition Ordinance, was conceived and designed by a colonial government to stifle fundamental rights and liberties, oppress the rakyat and deny them democratic space.  Its sole purpose was to suppress and persecute the citizenry.  The Sedition Act has no place in our modern democratic society and should have been discarded at Merdeka.  The time for it to be dumped into the dustbin of history is long overdue.

It has been reported that Adam Adli, Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar and Haris Ibrahim were arrested for purportedly making seditious statements at a forum held on 13 May 2013.  The continued use of the Sedition Act by the authorities directly contradicts the promise made less than a year ago by Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak in July 2012, that the 64-year-old law will be repealed and replaced in 2013 by a National Harmony Act.  This was a clear admission and recognition by the Government that the Sedition Act was an anachronistic and repressive colonial law.  The Prime Minister further stated that the new law will not prevent members of the public from criticising the government, quoting John Locke who said, “…the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” 

The decision to arrest Adam Adli, Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar and Haris Ibrahim is therefore an unacceptable repudiation of the promise made by the Prime Minister.  It further raises questions over the Government’s sincerity in pursuing transformation and greater civil liberties through legislative reforms.

The test of a genuine democracy is to allow words to be said even when we disagree with them.  As much as one may not agree with the calls for public demonstrations to oppose the Government and question its electoral legitimacy, citizens nevertheless have a fundamental right to express themselves in such manner so long as they do so peacefully and there is no call for the use of violence.  The authorities would be wrong to assume that a call to overthrow the government must necessarily be only by violent means.  Time and again, the rakyat have shown that they can gather in public assembly in large numbers, yet peacefully.  It is therefore unjustifiable and premature to preempt the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms with assumptions or postulations of the use of violence.  As much as dissent and opposition may be unpalatable, these must not be criminalised and silenced, but countered with open and healthy debate, reforms and concrete changes.

The Malaysian Bar is equally troubled by the arrest of 18 persons holding a peaceful candlelight vigil outside the Jinjang Police Detention Centre on 22 May 2013.  The Malaysian Bar is disappointed that the police have said that they can no longer tolerate such candlelight vigils.  It is not the role of the police to tolerate or otherwise, but it is their duty to facilitate the exercise of democratic freedoms.  The police must bring themselves into the 21st century and cease suppressing the rights of the rakyat.  The Malaysian Bar is concerned that these incidents may also signal a lurch towards greater authoritarianism, fascism and persecution of those whose viewpoints differ from those of the Government.  It feeds an already widely held belief that there is an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the police on the one hand, and Government on the other.  In simple terms, “You protect me, I defend you”.

This may be seen from the failure of the authorities to take similar action in other obvious cases that more clearly evidence utterances and publications exhibiting seditious tendencies.  It is inexplicable that there has been no similar prosecution against the likes of:
(a) Ibrahim Ali, for allegedly inciting the burning of Malay language bibles;
(b) Ridhuan Tee Abdullah and Zulkifli Noordin, for allegedly disparaging the Hindu religion and insulting adherents of the religion; 
(c) The racial rhetoric of the Prime Minister in his allegation of a “Chinese tsunami”, followed by the Utusan Malaysia article entitled “Apa lagi orang Cina mahu?”; and
(d) Datuk Mohd Noor Abdullah, a former Court of Appeal judge, for allegedly accusing a racial group of treason and warning of retribution by another racial group.   

While the Malaysian Bar is not advocating the use of the Sedition Act against these individuals, we abhor the discrepancies in treatment and the selective prosecution by the authorities in this regard.  Further, the police should not have made an application for the remand of Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar and Haris Ibrahim, because it was an abuse of the process of the law.  Given that the alleged incident occurred 11 days ago, the police should already have evidence of what was allegedly said.  We commend the Magistrate for having refused the application for remand.   

The Malaysian Bar strongly urges the authorities to withdraw the charge against Adam Adli, and not to prosecute Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar, Haris Ibrahim and the 18 individuals arrested at the candlelight vigil.  We urge them to respect the freedom of speech and assembly as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.  The Malaysian Bar also urges the Government to resist the temptation to quell dissenting voices by resorting to archaic and oppressive legislation.  Otherwise, the promise of freedoms made by the Prime Minister will be nothing more than a mere platitude.

The Malaysian Bar deplores the seizure of copies of Harakah, Suara Keadilan and The Rocket, the newspapers of political parties PAS, PKR and DAP, respectively.  We reiterate that the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 should be abolished.  The condition imposed by the authorities on these three publications — prohibiting their sale and distribution to members of the public at large — is unconstitutional, as it breaches the right of the publishers to the freedom of expression.  It is also a breach of the constitutional rights of the public to receive such information.

The recent arrests, prosecutions and confiscations by the authorities are manifestations of regressive and undemocratic conduct.  The current environment is not reflective of a government aspiring to achieve world-class democracy.  Rather than bringing about a society that is at ease with itself, it is instead creating an environment of grave concern.  

The Malaysian Bar calls upon the newly elected Government to demonstrate its commitment to a continuing course of transformation and democratic reforms, not by rhetoric alone but by sincere and genuine action. 

To promote greater democracy, the Government should welcome diversity of opinion, not close democratic space.

Christopher Leong
Malaysian Bar

24 May 2013

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