By BARU BIAN
COMMENT: The kneejerk reaction of some members of the Muslim community in hurling insults and abuse at me, and even calling for my death, after the Federal Court decision Tuesday clearly shows that they do not know the background of the cases and how the legal trials and tribulations of the 4 individuals has come to this.
I was out of town attending another case when the decision was delivered, and upon my return last night, I was saddened and shocked to see the videos and postings, and the statement by PAS Youth against me.
Firstly, I categorically refute the allegations that I am ‘Christianising’ Muslims or making Muslims ‘murtad’. These 4 persons only came to see me when they had run out of options in negotiating their release from Islam, and by the time I met them, they had long ceased to be practising Muslims. So to accuse me of making them ‘murtad’ is a vicious slander, and I am disappointed that those who profess to practise their religious faith should make these false accusations against me.
Nevertheless, my own religious conviction compels me to forgive and love them, for they do not know what they are doing.
It is the system that has failed these individuals. They had done everything that they were asked to do, and yet, the release they wanted was never given. Their letters to JAIS were ignored. In one case, letters to the JPN and the CM’s office also met with no response. The details of each case differ but I only took up these cases after the applicants had hit the proverbial brick wall.
After taking on the cases, my legal firm had been informed that the Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara (JPN) required a letter of release from the Syariah Court in order for them to amend the applicants’ identity cards and particulars in their system. However, when we inquired from and/or applied for such letters from the Syariah Court, we received a letter from the court to say that they had no power to issue such letters of release under the Syariah Court Ordinance Sarawak 2001.
Hence the legal proceedings had to be filed in the civil High Court for its opinion. Contrary to the Syariah Court’s letter, lawyers for Jabatan Agama Islam Sarawak (JAIS), Majlis Agama Islam Sarawak (MAIS) and the JPN argued that the Syariah Court has the implied power to deal with apostasy. As the law is not clear on the matter the issue had to be brought all the way to the Federal Court which finally made its decision yesterday morning that the Syariah Court has the jurisdiction to hear apostasy cases.
The legal issue is now settled. Because I believe, and many believe, in the Rule of Law and that the Federal Constitution is the supreme law of this country (Article 4 of the Federal Constitution) on which our Courts had been established, we accept the final verdict of the Federal Court.
On reflection of this matter, I see a parallel with my advocacy for the native customary rights of the indigenous people. In the early days of NCR cases, very few lawyers were willing to take on land cases for fear of being called ‘anti-government’ or because of vested interests. In the same way, few lawyers were willing to take on conversion cases for fear of being branded as ‘menghina Islam’ or ‘anti-government’, or simply because they did not want to have to come up against all the red-tape and obstacles facing these applicants.
In NCR cases, we do not discriminate against people of any race or religion. We do not pick and choose, but we represent those who seek justice from the state. Will these accusers acknowledge that I have acted for Muslims in many cases in claiming their native land and in particular the cases of Hj Rambli Bin Kawi, Abu Bakar Pangis representing 150 families and Karim Bin Enur representing more than 90 families, and won?
In the NCR cases, the issue of the recognition of Pemakai Menoa and Pulau Galau has been decided by the Federal Court in TR Sandah. Whether I agree with the decision or not is irrelevant – the decision allows us to move forward, and even the Government acknowledges that it may be necessary to amend the law to protect the rights of the people.
It is the same in these conversion cases. The problem arose because the Syariah Ordinance is silent on its jurisdiction to decide on apostasy matters, and the Syariah Court had declined jurisdiction.
This lacuna in the law and the long-drawn process had caused the applicants much anguish, anxiety and frustration. The decision of the Federal Court allows us to move forward and the legislature should consider whether the Ordinance should be amended to make the law clear. People who genuinely wish to convert should not be ignored and left in limbo by the institutions of the state.
Those who accuse me of having a Christian agenda by representing these 4 individuals free-of-charge are blatant liars. I have been representing them in my professional capacity as a lawyer and they have paid my professional fees and court fees. Those who make up lies about me clearly have political motives or have deep-seated insecurity about their own religious convictions.
If I had any Christian agenda, then the authorities should have taken action against me. And if these converts were wrong to convert out of Islam, then JAIS or MAIS or the Syariah Court should have charged them when they informed them of their intention to leave Islam or when they were called for counselling.
In representing these 4 individuals, I am merely carrying out my responsibilities as an advocate who believes in access to justice for all. The “Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers” adopted by the 8th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offences (‘the UN Principles’) in 1990 and intended to assist member states says this:
Lawyers, in protecting the rights of their clients and in promoting the cause of justice, shall seek to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law and shall at all times act freely and diligently in accordance with the law and recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession.
The Federal Constitution guarantees these 4 persons their freedom of religion. Who are the State and her institutions to deny them these rights? Why are my accusers so twisted that they do not realize that in speaking up for these 4 individuals, I am upholding the right of every Malaysian to practise the religion of his or her choosing?
It is indeed tragic that some segments of Malaysian society have regressed so much that they do not exercise independent thought and are so blinded by racial and religious bigotry that they do not see the wood for the trees.
In Sarawak, freedom of religion and the absence of an official religion were fiercely defended by our forefathers. This has allowed us to live in religious and racial harmony for many years. I will continue to defend these rights as long as I am able to, without fear or favour, both as an advocate and as a representative of the people, mindful always of the responsibilities imposed on me in both roles to preserve, protect and defend the Sarawak Constitution and the Federal Constitution.
It has been heartening that many people from both religions have closed ranks to stand up to the threats and abuse hurled against Christians and me. I wish to thank them for the very rational and reasonable stands made by them, including my colleagues in PKR Sarawak. I believe it is time for many others to join in this chorus calling for acceptance and peace.
When true leaders speak, their followers will obey and listen. Such is the time for all leaders from the religious divide to speak and stand together in order to protect and preserve our multi-racial and multi-religious Sarawak, and be vigilant to repel negative influences from beyond our shores.
• Baru Bian is a lawyer by profession as well as Chairman, KEADILAN Sarawak