Malaysiakini NEWS

Is putting activists under Sosma the new norm under Najib?

Nurul Izzah Anwar
Published:  |  Modified:

MP SPEAKS The euphoria surrounding the release of Maria Chin Abdullah from 10 days of torturous solitary confinement is very telling on the state of Malaysian democracy.

Maria's unjust detention has proved that Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) is indeed an abusive political tool looming over the hearts and minds of Malaysia.

Sosma has unusual powers that disregards even the Federal Constitution. It is therefore prone to government abuse and has also become solid proof that the BN government's alleged counter-terrorism laws mask their true intention: To stifle legitimate dissent.

Malaysians must fight against government repression. At the Civil Society Conference on the National Security Council last August, Umar Mahmood Khan, a lawyer on human rights in Pakistan warned us of a bleak new 'normal' environment, if public acceptance grows with each passing of repressive action and legislation by the state powers that be.

Indeed, promises made by autocrats are always broken.

In 1960, it was none other than Najib Abdul Razak's father, Abdul Razak Hussein, who presented the Internal Security Act in the august House, promising that the legislation would only be used against communist insurgents.

Regrettably, the list of ISA detainees appear to be a mirror image of prominent social activists and opposition leaders, comprising Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng, Mohamad Sabu, the late Karpal Singh and many more stalwarts of the opposition struggle.

Half a century later, Prime Minister Najib struck down the ISA, promising that from that fateful day of Sept 16, 2011 onwards, "no individual will be arrested merely on the point of political ideology".

Instead, the BN government installed Sosma with the purported objective of confronting "international terrorism". By Nov 18, 2016, the arrest of Maria - a 60-year-old loving mother of three, committed human rights activist and fearless Bersih 2.0 chairperson - under Sosma broke all pretence that 2016 was a better year for democracy in Malaysia in comparison with the past.

Resurrection of the ISA

In the frantic days leading up to the legislation of Sosma, many have vehemently voiced their concerns. The opposition lawmakers, local civil society groups, the esteemed Bar Council and even international human rights coalitions chorused their protests against potential government abuse that have eventually been proved true.

Indeed, our worst nightmare came true when Maria was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, left incommunicado with the rest of the world. It was as if the ISA - put to rest merely half a decade ago - was resurrected.

A terrorist commits violent acts of crime with the objective to provoke a state of terror in the general public. Maria coalesces public support through peaceful assemblies with the aim to achieve free, fair and clean elections. Maria is not a terrorist, but a patriotic, committed citizen of Malaysia.

No other human rights activist must be subjected to the heavy-handed treatment under Sosma detention. The madness under Sosma must end.

Yet, Sosma is a legislative behemoth, riding over the powers of Malaysia's laws. First of all, Sosma is unconstitutional for violating our fundamental liberties, as provided for in the Federal Constitution. Specifically, Sosma empowers police officers to arrest and detain "notwithstanding anything inconsistent with Articles 5 and 9" of the Federal Constitution.

In other words, Sosma negates an individual's right to life or personal liberty and also removes the guarantee that we have the right to move freely within our nation's land.

Secondly, the admissibility of any evidence in court is always subject to the Evidence Act 1950, but not if an individual is charged under Sosma. Sosma's assertion to be the higher source of power "notwithstanding anything inconsistent with the Evidence Act 1950" is outrageous, as compliance with the Evidence Act is instrumental in ensuring that each and every plaintiff and defendant undergoes a just trial process.

A person accused of a crime under Sosma is susceptible to the tampering of evidence because documents or things "howsoever obtained" can always be admitted in court. Sosma alone can and will deny the accused a chance challenge the admissibility of any evidence against him or her, and worse yet, muzzle the judiciary's responsibility to grant every individual before it a free and fair trial.

It is almost as if in Malaysia, under Sosma, one is guilty until proven innocent.

How about the terrorists?

Granted, Sosma has been used to detain terrorists. But, no one - irrespective of his or her race, religion, gender, age, or even ideology - can be denied their basic human rights. In the United States, for example, Senator John McCain that asserted all people have fundamental liberties that must never be violated, going so far as to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee that "I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good."

Yet, by a mere executive order, Sosma enables the police to detain any person "whom he has reason to believe to be involved in security offences" for up to 28 days. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations, of which Malaysia is a proud member, mandates that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary detention. Even in the United Kingdom, where pre-charge detention is also an unusually long 28 days, the detention of an accused must be reviewed by court at least every seven days.

With homegrown terrorists in Malaysia flying to Iraq and Syria at a rate of 8.5 individuals per million Muslim citizens, a staggering six times higher than Indonesia, coupled with the lack of transparency by the authorities to demonstrate the impact of their preventive measures - how are we to judge the efficacy of Sosma?

Sosma also unabashedly allows the police to wield the power to intercept all communication intended for the accused. Even in the case of terrorism, the power to interfere with a person's right to privacy must be balanced with judicial oversight.

A criminal conviction could warrant a fine, incarceration or even both. But, for every step of the way in the pre-trial proceedings, starting from the moment of arrest, judicial oversight must be present.

In his presentation of Sosma in the august House, Najib had unabashedly poised himself as a progressive leader of the 21st century. The eradication of the ISA, and the establishment of Sosma was meant to "realise Malaysia's potential, not just as a democratic country, but more than that - to take a leap to the forefront, to be among nations that respect the fundamental liberties of man."

Towards a working democracy

Ironically, reputed organisations worldwide - from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Amnesty International, to the United Nations Human Rights Office - have condemned the actions of Najib's administration precisely for disrespecting the fundamental liberties of man.

More importantly is the solidarity that all Malaysians showed against Maria's unlawful detention. To say the least, the response to Maria's unjust incarceration has been heartening.

For every night that Maria remained behind bars, Malaysians from all walks of life showed up with high spirits at Dataran Merdeka, braving the rain, risking harm to themselves as the police threatened a crackdown on peaceful candlelight vigils. Ten nights later, the mother was reunited with her children and a role model of society was welcomed home.

Maria may be physically unbound, but she remains within Sosma's grasp - not under detention, but under investigation. Yet, it is not just Sosma that we need to be wary of, but a whole slew of other treacherous legislation - the National Security Council Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the amendments to the Prevention of Crime Act - that the BN government conceived with ill intentions. Our demands for democratic reforms must persist.

If there's anything that 10 days of unwavering solidarity with Maria that culminated in her release have taught us, it is that the people have power, and this is what drives democracy. And it is this collective power that must push back against the acceptance of any regressive, new 'normal' environment.

The only accepted 'normal' is a working democracy, nothing less.

NURUL IZZAH ANWAR is the Lembah Pantai MP and PKR vice-president.

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