Tuesday, November 11, 2008

KEEPING THE FAITH ~ Malik Imtiaz Sarwar

Keeping The Faith

By Malik Imtiaz Sarwar

Over the weekend, the blogosphere was filled to the brim with posts and comments concerning Justice Syed Ahmad Helmy’s decision to release Raja Petra.

Many expressed surprise at the Judge having had the fortitude to rule as he did, going against the grain not being the easiest of options. Some were unfeelingly dismissive of the decision and its significance to Petra and his family, and to society as a whole. One of the theories advanced was that the decision to release Petra was engineered by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi as part of a campaign of political maneuvering against Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. Others cynically suggested that it was typical of the lawyers involved, myself included, to have made self-servingly positive statements concerning the Judge and the decision as we had won the case.

These comments made me wonder. Have we really been so thoroughly wrung that all hope and optimism have been bled from us? Are we so broken that we are incapable of appreciating the tiny and not so tiny miracles that happen in our lives every day?

Last Friday, as the first sob of joy escaped captivity in a courtroom that had been stilled by uncertainty, as the first tears of redemption rolled down cheeks that had been numbed by countless disappointments, I was reminded again that it is our collective faith in what is right that has consistently forged the way forward. As the cheers erupted from the many Malaysian throats present, and the Judge attempted to restore order, I understood that as our ties together as a community have strengthened so too has that faith. I saw, as Alice Walker pointed out recently to Barack Obama, it is we who we have been waiting for.

It does not matter what those who scoff say, justice was done last Friday.

No matter what we call it or how we dress it up, detention without trial is cruel. Stripped of everything, a human being has only his or her dignity and conscience. It is to these most fundamental of elements that the right to fair trial and the presumption of innocence speak. It is these elements that preventive detention aims to destroy. They are torn apart in the same way that the lives of those detained and their families are.

The due process of law ensures that the number of people who get shut away erroneously is small. A person charged with a crime in this country has at least two tiers of appeal. His conviction would have been scrutinized at least three times by several judges. A person detained without trial is detained with the stroke of a pen wielded by a Minister who is presumed to be objective enough to do what he needs to do in a way that ensures there is no possibility of error.

Where is justice? If the reasoning of the Minister is to be accepted, it does not enter the picture.

The Minister contends that detentions are a matter left by the law entirely to his subjective discretion. This means, he reasons, if he decides that an individual is a threat to national security, a court has no option but to accept this as a truth. This being the case, there is no need for the Minister’s conclusion to be justified. Extrapolating this analysis, the Minister is not required to argue that the justice of the case favours continued detention without trial. Justice is as such not a feature of the analysis and injustice an irrelevant consideration.

The Judge obviously felt otherwise. His observation, made in the course of his reasoning, that the law could not be understood as empowering the Minister to arbitrarily detain individuals for reasons that had nothing to do with the statute such as, for instance, simply having red hair, was illuminating.

Was his reasoning correct? I would like to think so. The Judge merely applied the law as framed by the legislature and in doing so gave expression to the intention of the drafters of the law: limiting preventive detention to the kind of exceptional “terror” situations described. The Federal Court may however take a different view, just as it may of the points of submission we made that the Judge disagreed with. We will get to argue these again if an appeal is lodged.

Was I happy that the Judge decided the way he did? I would have been foolish not to be, not least for Petra being reunited with his family. Do I think positively of this Judge? Most certainly for having shown me that it is not audacious for any of us to hope as we do. Would I have been disappointed if we lost? I would have but far less than if the Judge had not given us the excellent hearing he did. As we left court on the day we presented arguments, all of us understood that we had had the hearing that all of us wanted: a fair one.

And to those who suggest that the Judge was influenced, I say this. You do a disservice to yourself and to this nation. Had you been in court, you would have seen as we did a Judge keeping the faith.

[Malik Imtiaz Sarwar was counsel to Raja Petra Kamarudin. He is the current President of the National Human Rights Society and maintains a blog called Disquiet.]