Sahabat Alam Malaysia is concerned regarding the recent arrest of an Iban, Liam Rengga, from Rumah Kilat in Sungai Senga, Pandan-Sebauh, Bintulu on Nov 23 under Section 307(1) of the Penal Code.
We have cause for concern over this latest arrest of a Sarawak indigenous community activist, as Section 307(1) carries a very serious charge of attempted murder. It carries a sentence of between 10 to 20 years of jail, and a fine.
The arrest of Liam, 41, took place during the late afternoon of Nov 17 at his farm hut in Ulu Sungai Seplai, which also saw his traditional parang, known as ‘duku latuk’; used for his farming works, seized by the police.
His was arrested in connection to a police report made against him by a personnel of an oil palm plantation company, whose operations are said to have encroached into Liam’s traditional village territory.
In his own police report, lodged after his release on Nov 23, Liam alleged that a day prior to his arrest, he had bumped into two men whom he believed were agents of the oil palm company while he was putting up a no-entry signboard to his land.
Liam claimed to have spoken to the men about the communal hunting prohibition in the area after catching sight of a shotgun in the men’s vehicles.
He was later told off by the latter not to cause a ruckus.
According to Liam, the initiative to put up the signboard was primarily meant to deter outsiders from hunting in his village territory as well as for security reasons.
Liam has been fighting for the village natives’ customary land that was encroached by the plantation company without the people’s consent.
As a matter of fact, he and others are in the process of filing a legal suit against the company.
Led by him, the Rumah Kilat community has set up a residents association last year, the Sungai Senga Residents’ Association (SSRA) in order to better protect their collective interests in this regard.
Since the association was registered on July 20 this year regular campaign work to defend their native land rights has been carried out.
This includes informing the company and government authorities in an official letter dated Aug 31 of the environmental pollution and health of his village and villagers, respectively, being affected by water pollution from the plantation.
SSRA also issued a warning letter to the company on Oct 24 urging its workers to refrain from using the private road that runs through his village native customary land.
On Sept 15, the letters on SSRA’s objectives and functions were sent to the plantation company and several government departments in Bintulu including the District Office, Department of Land and Survey, Health Department, Forestry Department and the police.
The letter also included a copy of their SSRA registration with the Registrar Of Societies, and Sungai Senga’s boundary map.
Over the years, similar cases have been filed against indigenous people of Sarawak who have campaigned against logging and other activities that encroached their native lands.
One such case is the charge against Penan villagers from Long Lunyim, Semali Sait and his father Sait Kiling, who were detained for alleged criminal intimidation under Section 506 of the Penal Code on Sept 4, 2003.
A year later following numerous court adjournments, the charge against them was withdrawn but the experience proved to be a highly intimidating one for the two villagers.
Given the existence of such a trend, we fear that Liam may experience similar injustice; where credible evidence failed to be adduced by the state during the trial, leading to the eventual withdrawal of the charges.
In mid-October this year, seven community leaders in Sebuyau, Simunjan including NGO Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) secretary-general Nicholas Mujah were arrested based on allegations of arson to a timber camp.
Although they were eventually released on Oct 25, the allegations were unjust and evidence was unsubstantiated. These arrests, similar to most detentions of indigenous people speak of harassment and intimidation on NCR landowners to halt the campaign to protect their rights to life and land.
Therefore, we are indeed very concerned that the arrest and charge may possibly be undertaken in order to intimidate and silence Liam.
He is due to appear in court on Jan 6, 2011 and is currently out on bail. He has been asked to report to the Bintulu Police Station every first week of the month.
Liam categorically denied that he and his people had ever engaged in criminal behaviour in their struggle to defend their traditional territories.
He finds the charge of attempted murder extremely outrageous, illogical and way out of line – it certainly has the effect of tarnishing his good name, although he vows not to let his current predicament affect the community land rights struggle.
“I will continue championing our rights. If anything, I am more spirited now than I was before and will fight till the end,” he said. He added that he was prepared for an assault because of the hostility between his villagers and the company workers.
Taking into account all of the above, we therefore strongly urge that the charge against Liam, who is the sole breadwinner of his family, be dropped if the state is unable to gather concrete and comprehensive evidence.
We also call the Sarawak government to affirm the native customary rights of the Rumah Kilat community and to positively engage them by providing meaningful responses to their grievances, as communicated in the letters mentioned above.
Finally, we strongly urge the authorities to stop the intimidation and persecution of native leaders who are fighting for their lawful rights.
The author, SM Mohamed Idris, is the president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia.