Monday, December 29, 2003

Unheralded human rights defenders still deprived of education

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Unheralded human rights defenders still deprived of education
Suspended from campus even before the courts can find them guilty

by Charles Hector
Aliran Monthly 2003:11

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rafzan (4K)
Rafzan Ramli and the six other students should be considered as Human Rights Defenders.
Two and a half years have passed, and Rafzan Ramli and his six other student friends are still wondering when they can get back to campus to continue their studies and graduate with degrees or diploma.

The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) provides that when a student is charged with a criminal offence, he shall immediately be �suspended from being a student�. Thus these students who have been charged in court for the offence of illegal assembly are unable to continue their studies.

These seven students, after having been charged and pleaded not guilty, were subsequently suspended from their universities under the provisions of the UUCA or Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976.

Rafzan and his friends are still suspended and cannot continue their studies and get their degrees or diplomas - even though the alleged criminal offence occurred more than two years ago. Their peers would have all graduated by now and moved on with their lives, possibly now working and earning decent wages. But these students are still in limbo, unsure as to whether they will ever graduate.

The so-called �illegal assembly� took place on 8 June 2001, when about 500 undergraduate students from several universities and institutions of higher learning in Malaysia came together in Kuala Lumpur to protest the Internal Security Act 1960 (a draconian piece of legislation that allows for detention without trial). They called for the repeal of this Act and for the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained or restricted under this repressive law. Malaysians and others around the world have been calling for the repeal of these anti-liberty laws for a long time.

Out of the 500-odd students who gathered peacefully to express their protest, Rafzan and his six student friends were arrested. On 19 July 2001, they were charged in court for participating in an illegal assembly, an offence under the Police Act, 1967. All of them pleaded not guilty and claimed trial. Today, almost two and a half years later, their trial is still not over and they remain suspended from university/college.

Absolute Discretion

According to the UUCA or Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976, the Education Minister has the power to at any time, in any particular case, in his �absolute discretion�, to grant exemption to any person from the application of the provisions of section 15D (1) and/or (2), amongst others. This exemption can come with conditions or otherwise.

start_quote (1K) Now, even though these seven students are not prominent human rights activists, politicians or public personalities, the plight of these young human rights defenders should be a cause for concern among all justice-loving persons. end_quote (1K)
But alas, the Minister has so far not yet considered the matter, let alone exercised his discretion. In this case, Rafzan is still awaiting a reply to his letters of appeal to the Minister.

The students are not being charged for murder, assault, battery, robbery, theft, drug trafficking or any other offences against persons or property. They are being charged for participating in an assembly to express their opinion about a preventive detention law, the Internal Security Act.

More Restrictions

It is disturbing that students in Malaysian universities and institutions of higher learning suffer more limitations on their freedom and liberty than most other Malaysians. Instead of nurturing creative and critical thinking, the authorities have restricted the space for students to attain wider social concern.

Over and above the various laws and legislation that suppress freedoms and human rights in Malaysia, these students are also governed by the UUCA or Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976. The shackles are many, including restrictions on freedom of association with persons or groups outside the campuses.

Of concern in this case is the unjustified additional deprivation of rights imposed on students charged with a criminal offence even before any conviction by a court of law.

Under the UUCA or the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976, students in universities or other educational Institutions who are charged with criminal offences will be suspended and, if later found guilty, they will be expelled.

Section 15D (1) of the UUCA provides that:
�where a student of the University is charged with a criminal offence he shall immediately thereupon be suspended from being a student of the University and shall not during the pendency of the criminal proceedings, remain in or enter the Campus of that or any other University.�

Section 15D (2) of the UUCA provides that the said student shall immediately cease to be a student if found guilty. By implication, if the student is found not guilty, then he or she would presumably be able to continue studying.

Where Is The Equality?

The established legal principle of �presumption of innocence until proven guilty� seems to have been overlooked when it comes to university students. Normally, when people are charged in court, they can claim trial and be released on bail. They can then go back to work and resume normal life. They would only be required to serve the sentence upon conviction and sentencing.

But when it comes to university students, they are immediately suspended. If they are later found guilty, they would not only be expected to serve the sentence imposed by the court but would also be expelled.

Where then is the equality under the law guaranteed to all persons by our Federal Constitution? Where then is the promise that there shall be no discrimination as stipulated in the Federal Constitution? Those who fail to enter local universities and educational institutions enjoy so much more freedom and liberty than the students in these institutions. They can associate with whomever they want. They can join political parties, contest general elections and even have the chance to become Prime Minister.

We must realize that we are talking about students here, the hopes of their parents and the nation. To deprive them of higher education at the diploma and degree levels is a gross injustice. We are talking here about the right to education and their future. To suspend them indefinitely merely because they have been charged with an offence is very sad.

Human Rights Defenders

Rafzan Ramli and the six other students should be considered as Human Rights Defenders. It must not be forgotten that Malaysia is part of the United Nations. The UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998 through resolution 53/144 adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (now commonly referred to as the Human Rights Defenders� Declaration).

I believe that the �suspensions� of Rafzan and his six friends go against the principles and the very essence of this Declaration. Now, even though these seven students are not prominent human rights activists, politicians or public personalities, the plight of these young human rights defenders should be a cause for concern among all justice-loving persons.

I am not asking for their charges to be dropped, although that too will be good as they have suffered enough. What I am asking is for their suspension to be immediately revoked so that they can go back to their universities or educational institutions and finish their degree and diploma courses. In fact, in the worse case scenario, even if they are found guilty and sentenced to prison, their sentence should be suspended until they have completed their studies.

A note to the Education Minister:

Think of these students as your children, dear Minister, and allow them to immediately continue their studies in their respective universities and academic institutions so that they can get their degrees or diplomas. In an employment market that places high regard on paper qualifications, their continued suspension is manifestedly unfair. As the Education Minister, you should be projecting more care and compassion for Rafzan and his six friends. To ignore the students� letters of appeal and to allow them to suffer indefinitely doesn�t reflect well on you.

I am sure that all concerned and justice-loving people would also want the Education Minister to immediately exercise his discretion, as provided by law, and lift the suspension of these seven students. Repealing the UUCA and the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976 would contribute to the growth of well-rounded citizens and, in this spirit, we hope the government will seriously consider this.