Legal aid for the Abolish ISA rally detainees

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Looking back at the Abolish ISA rally, Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Stephanie Bastian pay tribute to these unsung Legal Aid lawyers who secured the early release of those detained during the rally. 

On Saturday, 1 August 2009, 589 people including 44 juveniles were arrested in connection with the anti ISA protests in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

Two teams of lawyers from the Bar Council mobilised themselves to respond.  The Human Rights Committee took charge of monitoring while the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (Kuala Lumpur) formed an Urgent Arrest Team to provide legal aid and assistance to those who might get arrested.

News about arrests

As early as 6.30am on that Saturday morning, volunteer lawyers of the Legal Aid Centre (LAC) had already gathered at the LAC office in Wisma Kraftangan. Lawyers manned the Centre while others went on the ground along Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Sogo area and Masjid Jamek to monitor the situation.

The Centre received the first report of arrests at about 9.00am. We also received reports that people were beaten up by the police and excessive force was used in the course of arrests even though those taking part in the assembly were not violent. In one incident, when one of the lawyers called on the police not to use excessive force, the police shouted back, “If you want to talk about rights, you go to court, you lawyers all you know is rights, rights, rights!”

As the day progressed, more and more calls were coming in informing the lawyers about arrests taking place at different hot spots.  Some arrests even took place outside Wisma Kraftangan itself! A few of the volunteer lawyers were also tear-gassed and harassed by the police.

Sieving through the information

The lawyers at the Centre began sieving through the information while trying to figure out the actual situation, especially the locations the detainees were being held. Where it was possible, lawyers asked the persons detained to confirm their whereabouts and advised them about their rights through the calls. They were also counselled to voice their requests to meet the lawyers and not to sign any statements without the presence of lawyers.

The information suggested that those detained were taken to a number of police stations including those along Jalan Campbell and Jalan  Tun H S Lee, but it also seemed to suggest that everyone was being moved to the FRU PGA Complex in Cheras.

To clarify the situation, the lawyers attempted to contact various police stations including Bukit Aman and Cheras to confirm the arrests, determine the location of the detainees and notify the authorities that they would be acting for the detainees – without much success. Most police stations denied holding any detainees and the FRU PGA Complex could not be contacted.

In the end, it was decided that one of the lawyers would take a trip to the FRU PGA Complex, Cheras  and to report back to the rest.  He arrived at about 3.00pm and was probably one of the first lawyers to arrive on the scene.   

FRU PGA Complex- Extremely uncooperative and inaccessible

At the Cheras FRU PGA complex, it was clear that hundreds of people were in police custody. This was evident from the truckloads of detainees being driven in. At this point, more lawyers had arrived but their efforts at gaining access to their clients proved difficult, as the police and the FRU officers were extremely uncooperative. Lawyers were made to stand and wait outside the huge complex, and repeated requests to talk to an officer or person in charge to find out what was happening were futile: an absolute lack of response from the officers manning the gate.  

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To make the problem worse, it was not clear if the complex could be used as a detention centre. No no police officer, investigation officer or OCPD appeared to be in charge, and the complex became one huge inaccessible fortress.

Those police officers that we had to interact with just said ‘No’ to every request or query.   They did not even bother to invoke Section 28A (8) of the CPC as they normally do.  A senior officer told one of the lawyers “Don’t talk to me about the law, you lawyers know the law and all I know is this is a ‘kawasan larangan’ so you cannot go in”. They were uninterested in the law. It was just a case of “no” and “you can do what you want.”

Despite being at the Cheras FRU PGA Complex for close to five hours, and despite numerous attempts on our part we never managed to gain access to any of the persons being held here. It was clear that the police have scant regard for Article 5 of the Federal Constitution.  In situation after situation, they deny lawyers the right of access and continue to make a mockery of Section 28A (2) to (7) of the Criminal Procedure Code which specifically allows for such access.

At some point, buses began to leave the complex.  It was not clear at this stage what was going on. Were detainees being released or merely being moved to different police stations? As has become standard police operating procedure in this country, the police never provide any information about what is going on!  We asked but as usual we were met with a wall of silence.  

Lawyers thus had no choice but to resort to chasing police buses on motorbikes to try and figure out what was going on.  After several attempts, one of the lawyers finally caught up with one of the buses at the train station in Cheras. Detainees were being let off the bus here and the lawyer managed to speak to them. This was the first time that we were able to confirm that releases were taking place.  

It baffles the mind as to why the police had to resort to such secrecy pertaining to their actions. If you are going to release someone – why not just say so. If you are going to remand someone –  is it so difficult to inform the family and friends that a remand order is being sought and let them know where and when the remand hearing will take place?  

A lot needs to be done to reform the police force, but one immediate step that they could easily take (if they wanted to) would be to be more transparent. But old habits die hard and the lack of transparency and secrecy appear to have become part of Polis Di Raja Malaysia’s organisational culture.

Bukit Jalil Police Station – Interviewing clients and remand hearing

While the lawyers were still at the Cheras FRU Complex, they began to receive reports that some of the persons detained were being held at the Bukit Jalil police station.  Some lawyers remained at the Complex to monitor the situation while others began travelling to Bukit Jalil.

Another group of lawyers headed to Petaling police station upon hearing of the detention of three juveniles there. When they arrived at the Petaling station, they discovered that one of the three juveniles had already been remanded for four days.  

The first volunteer lawyers arrived at Bukit Jalil at around 9.00pm. They spoke to the OCPD and asked to see their clients.  After waiting for almost two hours, they finally managed to see the IO, Inspector Buruwin. They repeatedly insisted on access and finally at about 11.00pm the team began to interview about 40 persons who were being detained in Bukit Jalil police station.  It was not certain if the remand would take place immediately and so the lawyers waited outside the police station till 2.00am, when they were informed that the remand hearing would only take place at 11.00am on Sunday (2 August).  

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The volunteer lawyers regrouped at the Bukit Jalil police station at 9.00am on Sunday. Despite being told that the remand proceedings would take place at 11.00am, the team wanted to turn up early since some of those detained on Saturday had been detained as early as 9.00 am on Saturday morning and there were concerns that the remand hearing might take place before the 24-hour deadline.  

The remand hearing at Bukit Jalil began at around noon on Sunday.  The two juveniles who had been detained at Petaling police station were brought to Bukit Jalil in a van. Puan Naziah was the presiding magistrate and she began by hearing the remand applications in respect of the two juveniles. She ordered them both released.     

She then proceeded to hear applications for remand in batches. She began with batches of three but towards the evening the batches got bigger with the last ones numbering 17 and 21. It was only during these proceedings that we learned that about 13 persons arrested early on Saturday morning had already been given remand orders. This remand hearing had apparently taken place at about 2.00pm on Saturday afternoon when we were still at Wisma Kraftangan and the anti-ISA gathering was in full swing!

The 13 had apparently been arrested at about 3.30am on Saturday morning.  No lawyer was present at the proceeding and the majority of the 13 were remanded for four days. While the remand hearings were going on, 21 more persons who had been held overnight in the Brickfields police station arrived.  

The remand hearing was a long drawn out process. By about 4.00pm some of the volunteer lawyers were exhausted.  Many of them had been at the Bukit Jalil police station until 3.00am on Saturday night and then returned to Bukit Jalil at 9.00am on Sunday morning. It had by now became clear that the remand hearings would run into the night.  Following that, an SOS was sent out for reinforcements. By 6.00pm more lawyers began arriving at the Bukit Jalil police station to assist.  

The remand hearing finally came to an end at 9.15pm – after almost 10 hours!  The total number of persons whom the police sought to remand was 77. The police failed to get remand orders against 59 persons and over the course of 10 hours, three juveniles, 11 women and 45 men were released. Cheers of joy and jubilation greeted those released as they met their friends and family outside the police gate.  Over the course of the day, a total of 18 persons were remanded – one juvenile, five women and a dozen men.   

The final batch of lawyers came out of the police station at 9.30pm to applause and shouts of “hidup peguam” from the crowd of family members and friends of the detainees.

Bail applications – KL Sessions Court

On 3 August 2009 (Monday), 29 persons were brought to the Sessions Court and charged; 16 for being part of an illegal assembly and 13 others under the Societies Act for distributing T-shirts for an unregistered society (Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA or GMI).

The volunteer lawyers did the bail applications.  The prosecution asked the Court to impose a bail of RM6,000 and a RM5,000 bond on the juvenile. The Court, however, after hearing arguments from the lawyers, fixed bail for each of the 28 at RM500 and allowed the juveniles to be released on a RM300 bond.

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The police then whisked off four of the women who had been offered bail in the Sessions Court to the Magistrates Court where they were charged for apparently not producing their ICs when arrested. Once again the lawyers conducted the bail application and bail was set at RM200 each.

Making a difference

The presence of lawyers at Bukit Jalil police station and in court made a difference.  At the remand hearings on Sunday in the Bukit Jalil police station, the police failed in three out of four cases to get a remand order. This failure rate is unprecedented.  We remember all too well, previous situations of mass arrests – when almost everyone would get remanded.  The maximum remand against the 18 was only two days – which meant that they had to either be charged on Monday or released.

The number of persons who were released at the remand hearings on Sunday stood in sharp contrast to the situation on Saturday afternoon when 13 unrepresented persons were remanded, the majority of them for the maximum of four days.

The lawyers who handled the bail application also did a good job by getting a bail as low as RM500.  In previous situations of mass arrest, bail had sometimes been as high as RM2,000.

Thank you

The Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (Kuala Lumpur) would like to thank all those who were part of the Urgent Arrest Team over the weekend, all those who responded to the SOS for more volunteer lawyers, chambering pupils, and staff of the Centre. Everyone played their part. Truly it was a wonderful team effort involving many people – some of whom gave  their time and effort on short notice.

We laud them for sacrificing their time and energy over the three arduous days. For being with us at our Centre to monitor the arrests, for travelling to different police stations on Saturday to try and locate those detained, for going to the Bukit Jalil police station to assist in the remand hearing and for turning up in court on Monday to help in the bail application.  

Their combined efforts and commitment to the fundamental tenet that every one has the right to legal counsel made a real difference to the length of time that the detainees had to suffer in police custody.

We thank the following persons for assisting in one way or another. Their presence made a real difference to the lives of all those detained:

Ravi Nekoo, Ravinder Singh, Fadiah Nadwa, Saha Deva, Stephanie Bastian, Valen Khor, Harleen Kaur, Rajen Devaraj, Puspawati Rosman, Harvindar Singh, Rajesweri Paramesevam, Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin, Nik Waheeda, Farida Mohamad, Sasha Lyna, Murnie Hidayah, Farhana Abdul Halim, Syuhaini Safwan, N. Surendran, Latheefa Koya, Honey Tan, Pushpa Ratnam, Lim Chee Wee, Ragunath Kesavan, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Daniel Joseph Albert, Syahredzan B Johan, Jonson Chong, Patrick Dass, Lee Choi Wan, Chow Siew Lin, Steven Thiruneelakandan, Brian Jit Singh, Verghese Aaron Mathews, David Dinesh Mathew, Khaizan Sharizad (Sherrie), Rachel Vanuja Suppiah, Seira Sacha, Adiba Shareen, Soo Siew Mei, Lim Kar Mern, Joanna Loy, Ahmad Zamri B Asa’ad Khuzaimi, Zulqarnain B. Lukman, Azizzul Shariman B Mat Yusoff, Ariff Azami B Hussein, Zulhazmi B. Shariff, George Varughese, M Puravalen, Richard Wee, Chin Hsu Lin, Chin Oy Sim, Andrew Khoo, Bavanee Subramaniam, Sivamalar Genapathy, Elizabeth Anne, Jeevanathan Angappan, Sheena Manicam and Nalina Grace Nair.

Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal is the Chairperson of the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (KL), Fadiah Nadwa Fikri is the Secretary and Stephanie Bastian is the Executive Director.

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