Catholic priest among 21 charged in PJ court

Catholic priest Rev. Father Paulino Miranda talking to Malaysia Today blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin outside the Petaling Jaya Sessions Court this morning. Miranda was among 21 people charged with taking part in an illegal assembly in Petaling Jaya and failing to obey a police order to disperse on Oct 9 last year. – Picture by Choo Choy May 

By Debra Chong, The Malaysian Insider

The parish priest of the Catholic church in Shah Alam was among 21 people charged in the Sessions Court this morning with taking part in an illegal assembly in Petaling Jaya and failing to obey a police order to disperse on Oct 9 last year.

Rev Father Paulino Miranda, who appeared in court dressed in the white robe and high collar of a priest, was made to stand outside the dock in the public galley, alongside 14 others, while the charges were read out to him.

Only seven people managed to fit inside the dock.

Despite it being a working day, the tiny courtroom here was packed with lawyers and supporters for the 21 accused persons, and included Malaysia Today blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, better known by his initials RPK, and his fans as well as Catholic clergy and churchgoers from as far as Klang and Subang Jaya.

Some of them had turned up in the court compound as early as 7am.

Other notables charged for the same two offences under section 27(5)(a) and section 27(4) of the Police Act are Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua, Selangor state assemblymen Ronnie Liu and Lau Weng San, and Petaling Jaya city councillor Tiew Way Keng.

They are accused of taking part in an illegal assembly held on the grounds in front of the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) building on Oct 9 last year between 9pm and 10.10pm, and failing to disperse after a police order was given by Supt Mohamad Shukor Sulong about 9.50pm.

All 21 accused, whose ages ranged between 25 and 62, pleaded not guilty.

If found guilty, they can be fined up to RM10,000 and jailed up to one year under section 27(8) of the same Police Act.

Judge Rozina Ayob set March 10 for the case to be mentioned. Bail was set at RM1,500 in one surety for each of the accused.

PJ Utara MP Tony Pua just before court session began. — Picture by Choo Choy May

She denied a request by the public prosecutor to seize the passports of the 21 accused.

Deputy public prosecutor Noordin Badaruddin had earlier asked the court to set bail at RM5,000 each and to impound the passports as a form of security against the 21.

Puchong MP Gobind Singh Deo led the various defence teams and argued against the prosecution's suggestions, calling the bail amount unreasonably high.

He pointed out that all 21 accused had voluntarily turned up in court to be charged after receiving a phone call from the police.

Backed by several other defence lawyers, Gobind also argued that the court had no power to seize the passports on the grounds that the two charges were bailable offences.

The arguments over bail and conditions for their release lasted well over an hour. By the time the judge made her decision, the payment counter for bail had closed, forcing many of the accused to remain inside the courtroom.

They will only be let out after 3pm, once payment has been made.

Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, who had shown up in support of the accused, said the charges were "completely ridiculous" and transgressed against the public's right to participate in a peaceful demonstration.

She added that it was a waste of taxpayers' money to prosecute the 21.

"This is a process of intimidation to drive fear into people from exercising their democratic right of peaceful assembly," Catholic priest Rev Father O.C. Lim told The Malaysian Insider.

Lim, from the Catholic Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur, however, disagreed that the charge against Miranda was motivated by religious differences between the Catholic Church and the Muslim-led federal government.