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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.

M.G.G. Pillai


Issue of 1-15 September 01

Special Report


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.

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 been.

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 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.

M.G.G. Pillai