(Penang, Sunday): During my 80-minute meeting with the Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman at the Suhakam
headquarters in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, I expressed my concern that Suhakam
is organizing a workshop on press freedom in Malaysia when it should be holding
inquiries into the various complaints of infringements of press freedom and
violations of free speech.
I was referring in particular to the Suhakam
announcement of 24th May 2002 that it had decided to organize a
workshop on press freedom in Malaysia in response to the various complaints and
memoranda submitted on violations of press freedom.
I told Abu Talib that it was a matter of concern
and even consternation that Suhakam seems to regard itself as an organizer of
workshops rather than as a body which had been established by statute with
specific powers to inquire into complaints of violations of press freedom.
There had been umpteenth workshops on press
freedom in the country in recent years, whether organsied by journalist groups
or the Bar Council, without any
appreciable improvement in press freedom. Even Suhakam last September had a
seminar on the role of the media in promoting human rights.
However, Suhakam’s function to organize
workshops, which is provided under Section 4(2)(a) of the Suhakam Act to
“promote awareness of human rights” cannot be allowed to overshadow or
supersede its more important function and power to “inquire into complaints
regarding infringements of human rights” as stated in Section (4)(1)(d) of the
Instead of a workshop on press freedom, Suhakam
should be holding inquiries into the various specific complaints of violations
of press freedom which it had
received in the past two years.
Suhakam had said that
NGO representatives will be invited to its workshop on press freedom
which, among other things, will examine laws and regulations that restrict press
freedom, the call for the establishment of an Independent Press Council and the
formulation of a Freedom of
How is Suhakam going to get the broadbased and
representative NGO support and co-operation for the workshop as the leading NGOs have launched a 100-day
boycott and disengagement with Suhakam in
the crisis of confidence over the credibility of the Human Rights Commission,
deciding on their relations with Suhakam after the 100-day boycott?
This was why I suggested to Abu Talib that
Suhakam should reach out to the
NGOs in view of the crucial role of the NGOs and the civil society to strengthen
national capacities for the promotion and protection of human rights – as
without full support and co-operation from NGOs and the civil society, Suhakam
will be crippled from discharging its
statutory duties to protect and promote human rights.
In my discussion with Talib, I also discussed
several outstanding issues to
illustrate my concern at Suhakam’s failure
to provide timely and/or impartial
investigation of human rights violations and recommending appropriate actions by
the relevant government authorities, such as:
The Kampong Medan Case
I expressed my disagreement with the decision of
Suhakam to suspend all further action into allegations of police inaction into
the Kampong Medan racial attacks in March last year until after the disposal of
the court case brought against it.
While I do not agree with the institution of the legal proceedings against Suhakam, as the police or the government would be the more rightful party to be sued, I cannot agree with the Suhakam’s “petty retaliation” to suspend all action on the case until the disposal of the case, for Suhakam should be more concerned about swift and just redress of human rights grievances and violations of the victims of the Kampong Medan racial attacks than about being sued – rightly or otherwise.
Suhakam is already not pro-active enough to protect human rights and it is unhealthy and undesirable to have a precedent to justify inaction. Suhakam’s being sued is no reason or excuse for inaction or suspension on its action on the Kampong Medan racial attacks which claimed six lives and injured some hundred people. Suhakam should not allow the court case to influence or prevent what it should statutorily be doing with regard to Kampong Medan case - to protect and promote human rights – and it should revoke its “suspension” of action on the Kampong Medan case.
inquiry into Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR) land controversy
Abu Talib informed me that he was going
through the draft report of the Suhakam inquiry into the Sarawak Native
Customary Rights (NCR) land controversy, which was headed by Datuk Dr. Dr.
Salleh Mohd Nor, one of the three most
industrious, conscientious and committed Suhakam Commissioners in the first-term
Suhakam who has been axed by not being re-appointed.
Talib’s explanation is most unsatisfactory.
On 15th May, I had asked whether the delay in the publication
of the Suhakam inquiry into the Sarawak NCR land controversy was
because of the strong objections of the Sarawak state government, which
wanted the Salleh draft report watered down.
In December last year, the
then Deputy Chairman of the Suhakam Complaints and Inquiries Working Group, Tan
Sri Anuar Zainal Abidin had announced in Kuching that a comprehensive report on
a Suhakam fact-finding mission following memoranda of complaints by Sarawak
natives affected by the Bakun dam project and native customary rights land (NCR)
conflicts was expected to be ready in February this year after hearing and
receiving representation from the
natives and the government authorities.
He said that the draft
report would also be forwarded to the Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud
once it was completed.
Among the complaints
lodged with Suhakam and were the subject of investigations
by the Suhakam fact finding mission headed by Salleh Mohd Nor were
the resettlement of nearly 1,000 people to Sungai Asap due to the Bakun
dam project; the problems faced by Penans relating to logging companies
encroaching into their NCR land resulting in pollution of water supply and loss
of food sources and hunting grounds left uncompensated; the problems of the Ibans in Ulu Niah in their conflicts with
oil palm companies, etc.
A week after my query,
Suhakam Commissioner Prof Chiam Heng Keng, who was a member of the NCR Inquiry,
said the Suhakam NCR report
was being finalized and could be released as “early as next week” –
but since then, some three weeks have passed and Abu Talib is still “going
Inquiry into the six ISA reformasi activists
The Harun Hashim Internal Security Act (ISA) inquiry will be the acid
test whether Suhakam has retreated to a narrow restrictive interpretation of
its powers or whether it stands firm and square on its statutory remit to
protect and promote human rights.
The three-member Suhakam inquiry, to be headed by Suhakam Deputy Chairman Tan Sri Harun Hashim together with Prof Mohd Hamdan Adnan and Asiah Abu Samah, is to begin a three-day hearing into the conditions of the six ISA reformasi activists currently detained at the Kamunting detention camp on Tuesday.
In my meeting with Abu Talib, I
expressed the general disappointment of the civil society at the narrowing of
the scope of the Suhakam probe into the detention conditions of the six ISA
reformasi activists, Mohamad Ezam Mohamad Nor, Hishamuddin Rais, Chua Tian
Chang, Saari Sungib, Badrulamin Bahron and Lokman Noor Adam at the Kamunting
Detention Camp when the inquiry should deal with the central issue of the human
rights violations of their ISA detention.
Abu Talib held that Suhakam is bound by the Human Rights Commission of
Malaysia Act 1999 which defined "human rights" as referring to
the fundamental liberties enshrined in Part II of the Federal Constitution,
which allowed for preventive detention laws.
I pointed out Section 4(4) of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 which states that "For the purpose of this Act, regard shall be had to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the extent that it is not inconsistent with the Federal Constitution", maintaining that while preventive detention laws are provided for under the Constitution, it does not mean that Suhakam is prohibited from inquiring into the human rights violations of ISA or from discharging its overarching responsibility to promote and protect human rights in calling for the repeal of the ISA.
Otherwise, Suhakam would have acted ultra vires when it decided at an emergency meeting on April 11, 2001 that the ISA is a fundamental violation of human rights and called for the immediate release of the reformasi activists detained under the ISA, or they should be charged and tried publicly for any offences under the law.
Even the Suhakam statement of May 24 this year, compromising the earlier Suhakam stand calling for the immediate repeal of ISA by expressing the hope for its repeal "in the long term" as a direct result of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, would be ultra vires by such a narrow and restrictive interpretation of the powers and duties of Suhakam.
Abu Talib said the Harun Hashim Inquiry team was studying into all the legal aspects of this question, and I hope that the Suhakam inquiry would not fail the acid test to stand firmly and squarely on its overarching responsibility to promote and protect human rights.
The lawyers for the reformasi six have said
that the six ISA detainees have taken a stand to boycott the Harun Hashim
inquiry if it is to be restricted solely into their conditions at the Kamunting
Detention Centre as it will not do
justice to their human rights
violations and will not be a bona
The boycott of the Harun Hashim inquiry by
the ISA reformasi six if it is confined to their detention conditions in
Kamunting will be most understandable, as such a restricted inquiry is a farce
and a charade, plunging Suhakam to a new depth of crisis of
confidence and credibility.