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MGG: Suhakam Scolds The Police
By M.G.G. Pillai
30/8/2001 7:46 pm Thu
I wrote this item on the Suhakam Report on the Kesas Highway
Incident, which appears in the latest issue of Harakah, out
today, 30 August 01). It appears under a different headline.
Issue of 1-15 September 01
SUHAKAM SCOLDS THE POLICE
The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed, dismisses the
semi-official Suhakam (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia)
Report on what is now known as November 5th incident at Kesas
tolled highway last year, as of no consequence. Its strictures
on police exuberance he dismisses out of hand, insisting that the
police in some Western countries are far worse.
The parliamentary secretary at the information and former
Utusan Malaysia editor-in-chief, Senator Datuk Zainuddin Maidin,
thought the report too explosive to be released into public hands
without telling them first why it is not worth the paper on which
it is printed. The police lost by default, refused to co-operate with
Suhakam, putting its case reluctantly, leading the inquiry to
conclude that it acted highhandedly and with intent to create
mayhem. The government reacted with its usual critical comment
on the inquiry, with whatever help or co-operation it provided
only after the Human Rights Commission Act was read to it.
The police lost by default, refused to co-operate with Suhakam, putting its case reluctantly, leading the inquiry to conclude that it acted highhandedly and with intent to create mayhem. The government reacted with its usual critical comment on the inquiry, with whatever help or co-operation it provided only after the Human Rights Commission Act was read to it.
Suhakam was set up to obviate criticism overseas of human
rights violation in Malaysia, to burnish a tarnished image after
the infamous black eye the then Inspector-General of Police, Tan
Sri Rahim Noor, inflicted upon a blind-folded, handcuffed just
arrested former deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim,
on 20 November 1998.
The government insisted Suhakam could not hold the inquiry
but the Suhakam three-man panel, led by the former Chief Judge of
Malaya, Tan Sri Anuar bin Dato' Zainal Abidin, insisted it could,
and would. It held that since the Suhakam Act gives the minister
extraparliamentary powers to make rules and regulations, the
government could not assume it did not have the power because the
minister has not gazetted them: if he did not, then the rules of
equity and fairplay applies.
It similarly dismissed an official objection that Suhakam
could not conduct the inquiry since there could be charges
pressed on some of the witnesses. When the inquiry began, no
one had been charged; even if they were, it could still go on
since it inquired into the narrow human rights violations of
those who took part. It ruled at the end of the inquiry, it had
It was Suhakam which winkled out an admission it was Tan Sri
Rahim Noor, the immediate past Inspector-General of Police, who
brutally assaulted a handcuffed and blindfolded just detained
former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Both the
government and he denied he had. Rahim Noor denied it. Rahim
eventually served two months in jail. And it destroyed the
government's case of official impartiality in the matter.
Now comes the Kesas Highway inquiry, which gives the police
another black eye, revealing its duplicity and double standards
when crowds are organised by the opposition. The Kesas Highway
incident took place not as an act of defiance by the Opposition
parties but developed into one when the government would not
allow them to organise it at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
For the government, it is a public relations disaster of the
highest order. The police has mud on its face: the Suhakam
report showed it could not be relied upon to exercise restraint
when the opposition, or any group opposed to the official view,
could expect fair play from the police.
As the report reveals, the highhandedness came from a high
level decision -- the deputy police chief of Selangor chaired the
committee -- to prevent the rally on 5 November 2000 on private
land off the Kesas Highway. The Attorney-General, the
Government's principal law officer, would not attend. His
argument that the inquiry was sub judice could not stand. The
police also stayed away. They should not have. By absenting themselves, they gave
the impression, now confirmed in the report, that they had
something to hide. If they had been present, they could have
challenged the assertions it now finds galling. This stems from
an arrogance that what it does is in the national interest and
should not ever be challenged. And now they rush to cover their
They should not have. By absenting themselves, they gave the impression, now confirmed in the report, that they had something to hide. If they had been present, they could have challenged the assertions it now finds galling. This stems from an arrogance that what it does is in the national interest and should not ever be challenged. And now they rush to cover their tracks.
The Suhakam Report could have been far better if the
government had co-operated with it. As it is, the 20-day hearing
over half-a-year -- it began on 29 December 2000 and ended its
final 20 days of hearing in July 2001 -- is based on 22 witnesses
at the Kesas Highway incident, seven expert witnesses and 11
Police officials involved in the fracas.
As the Report reveals, the rally was widely publicised, the
police declared it unlawful since no permit was applied for or
granted, and warned the public to stay away.
The police further held a highlevel meeting to plan to
prevent it. "The decision was to take action for 'total denial
and domination' which in effect meant 'total control'", the
Report said, and continues: "This involved preventing the public
from getting to Jalan Kebun, the venue of the gathering.
According to the police evidence, the decision was based on
several factors - the venue was too small to accommodate 100,000
people, the roads leading to the place were not 'big' and there
would be traffic congestion, the residents of Jalan Kebun had
objected to the gathering and had lodged a police report
complaining about their concern that the gathering would cause
public disorder and inconvenience to them."
The police swung into action. On 4 November, the deputy
Selangor police chief, Dato' Johan Che Din, went to Jalan Kebun
with enforcement officers, and told the traders setting up their
tents to dismantle them. Those who refused -- four men and one
woman -- were arrested. So was the owner of the property, Sd.
Mohamed Johari bin Haji Yasin. Road blocks were set up and
remained in place until the next day.
"On 5 November itself. five groups from five directions
converged on Jalan Kebun from about 11 am," the Report said. The
first group of 100 people were dispersed by noon. By 2.15 pm,
about 1,000 cars were parked in the Kesas Highway for as long as
four kilometres, the traffic jam caused by the police roadblocks
that allowed only one lane to be used for cars to leave.
Several of the trapped cars were not going to the rally but
they got caught in the cross fire, as the Report records from
their evidence. Caught in this massive traffic jam, many parked
their cars by the roadside. By 3 pm, about 5,000 people were
present. The police responded with water cannons and tear gas to
disperse the crowd. Tow trucks were used to cart some of the
cars away, and the road divided at the Kemuning toll gate removed
to allow the trapped cars to leave.
The Barisan Alternatif leaders arrived at the scene at 5.30
pm but they could not proceed to the Jalan Kebun site and so
decided to short speeches at the toll gate on the Kesas Highway
itself. The organiser of the rally said they would disperse
after the speeches, and four men were sent to request the police
to open the road.
But the police moved in with the water cannons and tear gas
and fired into the crowd. Several were arrested, some assaulted
and were injured, others suffered from the aftereffects of tear
gas and chemically laced water. The police assaulted witnesses,
kicked motorcycles parked at the roadside, smashed cars. It was
all in all an incident the police should hang its head in shame.
The Report does not say it but the Police was caught in the
political confrontation that had taken to the streets since the
arrest of Datuk Seri Anwar two years earlier. It got worse when
the police saw it as a threat to its authority and the government
its right to govern. It would not have if the authorities had
seen that the focus had shifted beyond Datuk Seri Anwar: other
issues, mostly of frustration of their problems not attended to,
took over. Many had come to the rally not to slight the
government but to tell it they should not be taken for granted.
But as usual the government misunderstood, and took steps
that only aggravated its tenous control of the machinery. It is
a public manifestation of a fight for political and cultural
control of the Malays that led to this. This has to be resolved
first; otherwise, without an avenue to express their doubts and
fears, this would lead to more confrontations like these.
Even if the Suhakam Report did not specify it in such stark
terms, it must nevertheless have been in the minds of the three
commissioners. So, its recommendations must be seriously
considered to prevent such occurrences in the future.
It says the police should not be overly confrontational when
meetings are held in private places. Since the venue in Jalan
Kebun was private property, the question of applying for a
licence did not arise. It did not say so, but the government
rules on ceremahs, especially when UMNO leaders speak, is so
generously interpreted when it is theirs and not so when it is
the opposition. Now, Suhakam clarifies the position. The rules,
Suhakam asserts, for police to interfere in what happens in
private property is well settled in law, and what the police did
went beyond that.
It asserts that just because one group objects to another
group meeting, on private property, is no ground to force the
other to disband. Indeed, it goes further: opposing groups be
allowed to demonstrate within sight of each other, and the police
present to make sure both are held peacefully and without
aggravation. And wants the law relating to assemblies be applied
equally and without discrimination.
It also insists that the Kesas Highway rally should have
been held at the Bukit Jalil stadium, the venue of choice, with
the police exercising traffic and crowd control, not prevent them
coming. If they had, the untoward incidents at the Jalan Kebun
meeting could not have happened. It further recommends that
managers of public places allow them to be used, if suitable, for
gatherings organised by all sectors of society. "This would
avoid the problem of unsuitable venues", it commented.
It holds that preventing people to attend a rally on private
property does not "come within the maintenance and preservation
of law and order" in the Police Act. Indeed, it asserts that the
police action worsened an otherwise controllable affair into one
which descended into mayhem, with police brutality and
overzealousness adding to it. Roadblocks should not be used to
prevent gatherings and assemblies from taking place, it adds.
The police should have given ample time for people to
disperse. And when people were trapped, as in the Kesas Highway
that day, it should not charged at them as it did when they could
not have, if they wanted to, left the area. The police acted
highhandedly to fire tear gas and water cannons at the crowds,
creating more mayhem, made worse by police assaults.
The Suhakam Report condemns the now common police practice
of destroying films of contentious police action. "The Panel is
of the view that the police have no authority to confiscate the
fil from the camera belonging to the member of the public."
And recommends that the Police review its own actions,
pulling up officers who use excessive force. As it is, the
officers used excessive force to prevent people leaving the
scene, that such force was not necessary as was the force used on
those who had been arrested and detained. And that those
arrested or detained should have been released on police bail
instead of subjecting them to further force in police lockups.
They should not be questioned on matters that had nothing to do
why they were arrested or detained, that it is not an offence to
wear a T-shirt with a portrait of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and
therefore not a justification to arrest a persion wearing it.
We know why the government is unhappy at the Suhakam Report.
It is told by a creature of its own creation that it does not
follow the rules it prescribes for others, that there is more
human rights abuses than we are led to believe by the guardians
of the law, that that should stop.
It is an early warning sign that if it does not, this may
not be the end of it. The government is forced into a corner,
and it cannot get out from there until it makes amends. It is a
bitter pill to swallow. Which is why the reaction does not
address the issues, and instead questions the bona fides of the
men and women it had in the first place appointed.