The Bar Council and the Malaysian Bar (the Bar) have been criticised recently as being pro-opposition. This is because of the Bar’s press statements and its extraordinary general meeting resolution regarding the police brutality shown at the Bersih 3.0 sit-down rally.
The common theme adopted by critics of the Bar is that the Bar was not fair, or even-handed, as it was more critical of the police than of the other parties involved.
Some of the more popular criticisms were summarised in Roger Tan’s article, “Unswayed by fear or favour” which was also published in The Sunday Star on May 20, 2012. In summary, he says the following:
The Bar in condemning police brutality must be equally aggressive in its condemnation against the protesters who “behaved like rioters and anarchists”;
The Bar had prejudged the issues by passing the resolution because by doing so “the Bar had already come to a conclusion that all those acts listed therein had been committed by the police”; and
The Bar should have demanded an apology from Anwar Ibrahim because “it was his men who were reportedly the ones who removed the barrier” which was “the trigger point”.
This statement is written immediately in response to Roger Tan’s article, but also addresses others who have been critical of the Bar on this issue. We intend to address the second criticism first, then the third and first criticisms. Our reason for this will become apparent as our reply develops.
The Bar did not prejudge the issues
In his second criticism, Tan says that the Bar should only pass the resolution condemning police brutality after a finding has been made by an independent body such as SUHAKAM. However, SUHAKAM relies on the evidence of witnesses, and often conducts a hearing several months after the event.
The Bar based its stance and resolution on the observations of 80 lawyers who formed a team of observers of events during Bersih 3.0. The purpose of assembling and mobilising this monitoring team was precisely so that the Bar would be able to rely on their eyewitness accounts, and not those of friends, media, the police, or post-event photos or videos.
The observations of the monitoring team were recorded and compiled within hours on the day itself, and thereafter fine-tuned and completed. We have no reason to doubt the credibility and observations of the team, and neither have we heard of substantiated allegations about them.
Aside from the Bar monitoring team and its report, many other eyewitness accounts have emerged since that day, including photos and videos that speak for themselves. Significantly, on this occasion, even media members were not spared.
We even had the embarrassing incident where Al-Jazeera’s reporter Harry Fawcett had to report via Skype from his iPad as his team’s video camera was smashed by police while they were recording police brutality against protesters.
Most importantly, many previous SUHAKAM inquiries — the Nov 5, 2001 Kesas Highway Incident, the June 17, 2003 Kundasang Incident, the May 28, 2006 KLCC Incident, the May 27, 2008 Persiaran Bandar Mahkota Cheras 1 Incident, the July 9, 2011 Bersih 2.0 Incident — all found excessive use of force by the police and evidence of police brutality.
Numerous complaints by victims led to these inquiries being conducted, the findings of which thereafter vindicated the complaints leading to damning conclusions about police conduct. These many reports do not just show isolated instances of police brutality: Bersih 3.0 was not a one-off.
There is a pattern of regular use of excessive force and brutality in the violation of human rights by the Royal Malaysian Police Force. Despite these many reports by SUHAKAM, and despite the findings of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operations and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police, the police have not made any serious attempt to school themselves in the prevention of human rights violations.
Regrettably, Tan is sceptical of the 80 monitors appointed by the Bar Council because they are not named, as he “would certainly like to know their political inclinations” to satisfy himself that they “were independent-minded in their conclusions”.
Firstly, five widely-respected senior members of the Bar, who were a part of a “roving” team of monitors, were named and had their observations separately documented: Christopher Leong (vice-president of the Malaysian Bar), Steven Thiru (treasurer of the Bar Council), Ramachelvam Manimuthu, Ramdas Tikamdas and Roger Chan Weng Keng. Apparently it is not enough that lawyers of this calibre verify and endorse the report.
More importantly, what does one’s political inclination have to do with stating a fact about whether Malaysian citizens were assaulted and battered by the police, and whether there was excessive use of force in accordance with international human rights standards?
While Tan has left the Bar Council, it is unfair to assume that the Bar Council would not have trained these monitors properly, bearing in mind this is not the first assembly monitoring mission dispatched by the Council.
Tan’s flippant remarks greatly disparage those members of the Bar who volunteered to serve on the monitoring team, implying as it does that they would allow their personal prejudice to influence their professional duties. It is part of our job as lawyers to put aside our personal prejudice in order to advance the cause of justice.
Rather conveniently, while casting these aspersions on others, Tan himself does not reveal his strong affiliations to a particular political party. Employing his logic, one wonders, perhaps, whether commentators in The Star, for example should also be required to divulge their political affiliations and leanings before their opinion pieces are published. But we will not venture into the realm of the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem to discredit the views of others, as Tan disappointingly has.
Tan’s comments suggest that we should not immediately make conclusions, even if we see a group of uniformed policemen beating up an unarmed citizen who lies helpless on the ground because there were extenuating circumstances. And even if numerous members of the Bar, members of the public and journalists documented such incidents of brutality.
The fact is, the police are supposed to treat each person they arrest as if they are innocent until proven guilty. The police should only use reasonable force in arresting someone. If they have to resort to force, they should only use force that is proportionate to the threat faced, and only enough to ensure the person’s arrest.
Tan cites the example of the Bar postponing its EGM with regard to the VK Lingam video clip scandal while it waited for the Royal Commission of Inquiry to complete its task. However, Tan seems to overlook the fact that the video clip sparked the groundbreaking Walk for Justice in September 2007, which saw about 2,000 lawyers marching to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The other difference with that example is that with Bersih 3.0, the Bar monitoring team saw police brutality with their own eyes, and not through a video clip. It is obvious that this is not a comparable precedent.
What is his obsession with Anwar Ibrahim?
In his third criticism, Tan insists that the Bar should similarly demand an apology from Anwar because he was reported to have instigated the removal of the barrier. But Tan must understand that one must distinguish between credible first-hand reports by Bar monitors from accusations by obviously partisan members of Barisan Nasional and its media.
This is where Tan shows an obvious inconsistency: while saying that the eyewitness accounts of the Bar’s monitoring team are insufficient to be relied upon, he says that the Bar should demand an apology from Anwar for an incident that no one on the Bar’s monitoring team witnessed.
Despite the many eyewitness blog entries, photos and videos, there has been no compelling evidence either way to show who removed the barriers, or whether their removal was facilitated by the police, public, or opposition members. On what basis does Tan suggest that the Bar demands an apology from Anwar Ibrahim?
Let us for one moment set aside the question whether the court order prohibiting entry into Dataran Merdeka was unnecessary, wrong in law and unconstitutional. Let us also assume the barriers in question were covered by the court order.
Even assuming that the order was validly executed by the police, did it necessitate the extreme use of non-lethal force to arrest and disperse the small group of people who breached the barrier? Bearing in mind that the Bar’s resolution was on police misconduct, and not about who removed the barrier, it is even more disconcerting that Tan implies that the police may excessively and disproportionally tear-gas and beat the innocent just to get at those who did breach the barrier.
The Bar need not have condemned the protesters
Finally, Tan develops the basis of the criticism that the Bar is not “independent” by stating the Bar failed to condemn with equal vigour lay members of the public who he says acted “like rioters and anarchists”.
Many labour under the misapprehension that to be “independent”, an organisation must always be even-handed and restrained in one’s remarks. But that is a fallacy. And it is an even greater fallacy when it concerns injustice.
Police brutality is a violation of a human right. A violation of any human right is manifest injustice. Police brutality per se is an injustice. The presence of police brutality has tainted the Malaysian police as surely as a drop of blood stains a uniform.
An injustice perpetrated by even one from an institution set up to serve the cause of justice deserves the harshest condemnation. There cannot be any restraint in condemning abuse of power. As a force meant to be independent and professional, the Malaysian police are kept to higher standards than lay members of the public.
So, the Bar cannot be swayed by fear or favour. It cannot be hesitant or even-handed in condemning an injustice that is police brutality. Here is an executive institution that is well-funded and well-staffed, with wide powers that is taking action against unarmed people. It is the state against the individual person, and the Bar stands – must stand – for the latter.
What Tan and many who adopt this line of criticism fail to explain is how the condemnation of police brutality amounts to an endorsement of the opposition. This criticism reveals more of their own political prejudice than that of the Bar. Their criticism strongly suggests a belief that criticism of the police is the equivalent of criticism against the political party in government. Their criticism also reveals that they are the sort who think that perception is reality.
It is only those who are so immersed and drenched in politics who adopt such a worldview. The Bar’s criticism and the facts it relies on are an inconvenience to their perception. Ultimately, these popular criticisms against the Bar are not borne of logic or facts, but a need to feel good.
There is one further reason why we would not have voted for a resolution that condemned those members of the public who turned violent. The fact is that most thinking Malaysians who have access to the alternative media — and therefore do not rely solely on the barefaced propaganda of our mainstream print and broadcast media — are not convinced that these so-called “rioters” are as blameworthy as the police.
The police put razor wire across our city roads, turning Kuala Lumpur into a war zone before any violence had ensued. The police obtained a totally unnecessary court order prohibiting entry into Dataran Merdeka for four days, without any notice or opportunity for the organisers of Bersih 3.0 to present their case.
Then, when the disturbance started, it was the police who shot tear gas behind and in front of retreating protesters so that they were boxed in rather than allowed to disperse. Who ordered the closure of the nearby LRT stations so as to prevent people from dispersing? Who ordered the destruction of cameras belonging to journalists, and the reported censorship of Al Jazeera and the BBC?
What justified the four hours of continued attacks on people who were already dispersing or having dinner? All this done against fellow Malaysians, who until the very end had taken part in an almost perfect rally.
As pointed out by Tan, the Bar’s resolution did expressly state that the Bar is concerned with and does not countenance acts of violence by rally participants, and is concerned by reports that police barriers were breached.
In our view, that says enough. We did not hear any suggestions made at the EGM to amend the resolution. All the dissenters at the EGM agreed in principle that they were against police brutality. What more needs to be said, really, seeing as the police were already actively identifying and hunting down those whom they said committed offences during the rally?
The police had even stated that they would conduct house-to-house searches for these individuals. Compare this with the lack of action in identifying, let alone condemning and punishing, the police officers who committed violations of duty and human rights.
The Bar’s resolution was proper
The Bar was entitled to and correct in issuing the statements it did, and to pass the resolution it did. The resolution is fair in all the circumstances and was carefully worded throughout. The facts that it had gathered, through the Bar’s own members, were set forth frankly and properly, and the urgent action that was needed due to the unprecedented police brutality seen on that day was set out in an appropriate and immediate manner.
We are proud to have supported the Bar’s resolution and have no qualms about the Bar’s continued independence. We believe the vast majority of the Bar are totally in support of the resolution, and the comments against the resolution are the isolated voices of a few in the wilderness, given undue prominence by propaganda organisations posing as the mass media.
It is telling that Tan states that “removing the barrier was the trigger point” and adds that it is “common sense” that “whoever first raises his hand against the other is the most blameworthy”.
Words do not suffice to describe the disingenuous nature of the suggestion that the removal of the barrier is even remotely comparable with the brutal actions of the police.
In any case, there have been no reports of barriers being “breached” in front of the Bar Council, on Leboh Pasar Besar – yet even then, water cannons and tear gas were fired there. Tan fails to acknowledge the clear reality that police reaction was not localised to Dataran Merdeka or to the participants there, and that other than at the Jalan Raja-Jalan Tun Perak junction, it was the police who struck first.
The actions of some members of the police force on that day were incidents of injustice that were so blatant that it should be impossible for anyone who purports to stand up for justice to remain silent.
We have already seen concerted efforts — by the ruling coalition, the police and those who are too politically-partisan to distinguish clear acts of injustice from their political posturing — to distract citizens from the injustice highlighted by the Bar’s resolution by attacking the Bar and casting aspersions on those who did no more than report what they saw with their own eyes.
The Bar must continue to fight for those who cannot speak up for themselves, and whose rights are oppressed by the might of the state. That is our duty, and one that we hope members of the Bar will continue to discharge without fear or favour.
This response was written under LoyarBurok and jointly endorsed by Edmund Bon, Fahri Azzat, Janet Chai, K. Shanmuga, Mahaletchumy Balakrishnan, Marcus van Geyzel, Seira Sacha Abu Bakar, and Sharmila Sekaran.