Implications of ISA case for Malaysia and Singapore

29 Oct

According to Inter Press Service, “Damages Award Exposes Internal Security Act (ISA)” dated 24 October, an ex-ISA detainee, Abdul Malek Hussin, has been awarded 2.5 million Malaysian ringgit (740,000 US dollars) in damages for successfully suing the country’s top two police officers and the government for false imprisonment, assault and battery.

The man was detained for 57 days in 1998 and underwent torture treatments including “vile assaults, unspeakable humiliation, and prolonged physical and mental ill-treatment”.

The High Court judge, Hishamudin Mohd Yunus, who had previously ordered the immediate release of two reformasi activists after seven weeks of ISA detention, was quoted in the news article that, ”The practice of torturing detainees by the police force can never and should never be condoned by the courts. The court must show its utmost disapproval in no uncertain terms.”

The Internal Security Act or ISA is a draconian legislation existing in Malaysia and Singapore, created by the British during colonial times that allow the governments to detain its citizens without a free and open trial.

Since independence, both the Singapore and Malaysian governments have used ISA to imprison political and human rights activists, as well as people it deems as “posing a threat to national security”. In recent years, the ISA is used in both countries to mainly imprison Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants who are blamed for the Bali bombings.

The implications of this case, whereby an activist has successfully sued the government and top police officials for illegal detention and torture, may break new grounds and pave the way for ex-detainees in Malaysia and maybe even Singapore, to pursue a similar course of redress. However, the likelihood of winning a court case in which the individual sues the state or its security arm is still very low in both countries. Moreover, court cases with such nature, costs an arm and leg. The high costs might prove difficult for the wronged individual to raise.

The possibility of using the judiciary to over turn the decisions of the legislative to abolish the ISA is almost impossible just in case, activists might be tempted to do so.

Taking the United States as an example, while the Supreme Court was able to over-rule the Bush Administration by concluding that it does not have the authority to try suspected terrorists with the current military tribunal; the court has however not been able to order the closure of existing Guantanamo Bay facilities.

In Singapore and Malaysia, critics have accused the judiciary to be partial towards the legislative and executive.

In Malaysia, this year, 2,000 lawyers and concerned Malaysians marched from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister’s office, demanding for an inquiry over the issue of fixing of judicial appointments and promotions with a business tycoon and a ruling party politician allegedly acting as intermediaries for then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysian-based human rights NGO, Aliran, in their press statement, “Anwar’s expose: Suspend Chief Justice immediately” wrote,

The rot in the judiciary must be addressed urgently and as a matter of priority. All judges who have been appointed and promoted through the alleged conspiracy of the executive with individuals and judges – thus bypassing all those deserving such promotions – must be purged to save the judiciary from the clutches of the executive. Justice has been subverted by these tainted appointments.”

In Singapore, Opposition politicians and news publications have lost their defamation suit cases in the courts brought by its political leaders. Francis Seow, an ex- solicitor general, in his book, “Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary” wrote,

“politically-freighted cases have repeatedly demonstrated a singular facility at bending over backwards to render decisions favourable to the Singapore government and its leaders. Their judicial contortions have acquired an international notoriety that concerned human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, and latterly the Lawyers’ Human Rights Watch Canada, enough to send legal representatives to Singapore to observe the trial proceedings at first hand.

Their observations confirmed what many Singaporeans have known all along: that the political context of such cases invariably influences the judges in their decisions.”

Bearing these in mind, Abdul Malek Hussin’s case is a watershed, nevertheless, in demonstrating, to the ISD and the government that they can no longer act without impunity and in using torture techniques against ISA detainees. However, it also means the government will be more cautious in appointing more conservative High Court judges.

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