Courting trouble to make a point

At the last count, there are about 10 opposition politicians who are facing charges, mostly for politically related offences. There are also a few who have decade-old cases.

The Straits Times

The voluble opposition MP Tian Chua was at a loss for words for a moment when asked how many offences he has been charged with. “Erm, um, five. Five, I think five,” he told The Straits Times, still sounding unsure.

It is not surprising. The politician, one of the more hot-headed MPs, is no stranger to the court. He has been in and out of court repeatedly to face charges, all related to illegal assembly or defying police orders.

But if he cannot keep track of his cases, it is even harder to track the spate of YBs (Yang Berhormat or the Honourable, an honorific for MPs) being charged in court.

At the last count, there are about 10 opposition politicians who are facing charges, mostly for politically related offences. There are also a few who have decade-old cases.

“You'd be surprised but some cases from the Reformasi time are still going on,” said human rights lawyer Amer Hamzah Arshad, referring to the street protests that broke out when then-Deputy Premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked.

This week, it was veteran opposition MP Karpal Singh who was in the dock when his case came up on Tuesday on a preliminary issue.

He has been charged with sedition for threatening to sue the Sultan of Perak for installing a new government instead of holding fresh polls after the opposition administration was toppled by defections.

The court refused to terminate his case and set the hearing for August.

Such court cases have become so run-of-the-mill that some MPs themselves often do not remember that they have a case in court.

“I'd forgotten about it until you reminded me,” said opposition MP Tony Pua, who is charged with taking part in an anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) candlelight vigil.

This trend is a by-product, of course, of the turbulent politics of the day. Although things have quietened down today compared to a year ago, small rallies and candlelight vigils are still a method of choice for protesters.

The spate of charges has alarmed the opposition DAP enough to caution its MPs not to be reckless. Pua said MPs have been asked not to jeopardise their parliamentary status, although they are still encouraged to support causes such as movements against the ISA.

There is also a different category of MPs in court — those charged with offences that are not politically related, although they would claim a political motive behind their prosecution.

Leading that group is opposition leader Anwar who is charged with sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan.

Two former opposition state assemblymen, Jamaluddin Mat Radzi and Osman Jailu, are facing corruption charges. They defected to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in February, helping to topple the Pakatan Rakyat-held Perak government.

These cases do not fall in the same category as the others that arose from political conduct, but they all carry the same consequences. An MP who is convicted and fined more than RM2,000 or jailed more than a year is disqualified and barred from contesting in elections for five years.

The most significant cases of disqualification included that of Anwar, who was convicted of corruption in 1999.

And there were the cases of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who was jailed in 1998 for distributing a pamphlet said to contain false allegations, and former Sabah Chief Minister Yong Teck Lee, who was found guilty by an Election Court for corrupt practices and lost his state seat in 2001.

But no MP has been disqualified for taking part in rallies. In fact, given the number of cases in court, the conviction rate is very low.

“In general, the cases always finish in our favour. The whole point is not to convict us; it is to send a signal to the public,” said Parti Keadilan Rakyat MP Chua.

To some extent, he thinks that it has worked. Some people do stay away from rallies. But it is not entirely effective. The last street rally organised to protest against the use of English in teaching mathematics and science in schools drew thousands.

Since the general election last year, there is a sense of defiance that is hard to quash.

“Members of the public are more willing to stand up, and even to put their liberty at stake,” said Amer, the lawyer.

He said that if the government is trying to redress a political issue, the courts are not the best avenue. The situation can turn ridiculous and public confidence plummets. “The public starts to lose trust, and it doesn't augur well for the country,” he said.

It is significant that these MPs become heroes when they are charged in court. And there is a strong sense that offences such as sedition and illegal assembly are outmoded.

“It's a waste of time and public resources,” said Pua. “These are not cases of violence and there are no victims.”

From the jumble of cases, one is clearly the most important — that of Anwar's alleged sodomy. It will have a major impact on Malaysian politics.

July will be his month in court.