The freed Malaysian civil rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah received a rapturous welcome when she arrived at Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) last night.
Even pouring rain could not dampen the spirits of those gathered to greet her and hear her speak. Supporters thronged to hug her and express their happiness at seeing her released.
The Bersih leader was unexpectedly freed yesterday (Monday) afternoon on the eleventh day of her detention under legislation intended to combat terrorism.
A habeas corpus application had been scheduled to be heard in the High Court today.
She last night praised those who were brave enough to turn out for the Bersih 5 rally despite her arrest, and the arrest of other activists, and the threats from the pro-government Red Shirts, who turned out on the day of the demonstration.
“Without the people’s support I would not be free,” she said. Knowing that Bersih 5 went ahead peacefully helped to keep her going during her detention, she added. “That gave me a lot of courage. To know that I had the support and that I was not alone.”
Bersih 5, attended by more than 50,000 people.
Maria Chin, who is the chairwoman of the Bersih 2.0 Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, was arrested on November 18, the day before Bersih 5.
There was outrage both nationally and internationally over her detention under the 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA.
Under SOSMA, the authorities can hold detainees for 28 days without trial, including two days without legal representation.
The Bersih leader was held in solitary confinement in a tiny, windowless cell with a light on 24 hours a day. After protests about the conditions of her detention, she was given a mattress and a pillow.
She spoke last night about her detention: “Every time I left my cell I was blindfolded with large goggles. I didn’t know where I was, and that was meant to scare me.
“Every time they brought me out, they didn’t tell me where I was going. The interrogation happened every day for long hours.”
She thanked the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). After she was visited by SUHAKAM representatives, the interrogations eased, she said.
The interrogations, she said, were mostly about Global Bersih, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network founded by billionaire George Soros, and Berish 2.0’s accounts.
Last night, she again refuted claims that she has received funds from the OSF.
Bersih 2.0’s accounts were transparent and available on the Internet for everyone to see, she said.
The Bersih leader says the police have told her that she is still being investigated. She says she intends to fight her detention in court. “My detention is illegal,” she told KiniTV. “I am not a terrorist. Neither is Bersih a terrorist organisation.”
Maria Chin said last night that a priority now was fighting for the abolition of SOSMA.
She also said that she wanted to start a campaign to register new voters, and that defeating the ruling coalition was possible in the next general election. She and other Bersih activists would continue to object to unfair election delineation, she said. “We will continue with educating voters. We will not stop.”
One of the speakers at tonight’s gathering was the cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, who has already drawn a number of cartoons about the Bersih leader’s arrest.
He was himself arrested on Saturday (November 26) and has been charged with alleged sedition for the tenth time.
Zunar’s arrest came a day after several members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) disrupted the cartoonist’s exhibition at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang and threated him, demanding that his exhibition be taken down.
Cartoon by Zunar
Zunar said last night that Malaysia was in a very bad situation and was filled with corruption. Everyone needed to stand up and play their part in challenging the government, he said. “We all have to stand up and say no to the regime; and they will go.”
He added: “It was a real burden for all of us to see Maria facing that kind of torture in detention. It was a huge relief to see her released.”
The MP for Batu Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua, who has himself spent lengthy periods in detention, said last night that recent violence by the ruling party’s supporters was akin to the rise of fascism in Europe.
“We can see the ruling party increasingly resorting to violence to intimidate the people.”
The MP said he was very happy to see Maria Chin released, but there was still a lot of work to be done. “The early release doesn’t absolve the transgressions of the government against the human rights of this country.”
Tian Chua said the release of Maria Chin was a people’s victory. “Because of our continuous, resolute mobilisation, we finally pressurised the authorities to release her.
“I want to thank the public for enthusiastically mobilising, and being firm in not backing down under intimidation.”
The news of the Bersih leader’s release came in tweets from Lawyers for Liberty and Maria Chin’s lawyer and the president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Sreenevasan tweeted: “Our dear friend Maria has been set free! Praise God! She is with me and is well!!!”
Sreenevasan (left) with Maria Chin just after the Bersih leader’s release.
Sreenevasan said the Bersih leader was released at the Bukit Aman police headquarters.
“Initially, they said they will record her statement,” Sreenevasan told the online news portal Malaysiakini. “So I went inside to accompany her as they took her statement.
“At the end of it, they got an order to release her. We were really stunned and both of us broke down.”
Sreenevasan said last night that the Malaysian government had to stop treating the country’s citizens as its enemies. “They are constantly suspicious. They need to get over this paranoia.”
Arresting the Bersih leader was “a hell of a blunder”, Sreenevasan said. “It backfired big time, and it took them ten days to find that out.
“What they were trying to do was quell the spirit of Bersih, thinking they could scare people, but it had the opposite effect.”
Maria Chin’s three sons, Azemi, Aziman and Azumin, were full of smiles last night and thanked those who had campaigned for their mother’s release.
Maria Chin’s sons, pictured at the launch of a campaign for her release last Friday.
Raid on women’s group
The police yesterday raided the office of the women’s group Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER) in Petaling Jaya.
The organisation’s lawyer, Honey Tan, said the police were investigating the group under Section 124C of the Penal Code for alleged activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, and also under SOSMA. Documents were seized, but no-one was arrested.
EMPOWER was founded by Maria Chin.
Update 18h, 29/11/2016:
Maria Chin this morning discovered an envelope in her mail that contained a third death threat and a live bullet. Wrongly addressed, the message read: “Last Warning if not R.I.P Marina & Family.”
The threatening note and .45mm bullet are believed to have been hand delivered to the Bersih leader’s home on November 18, the day she was arrested, on the eve of the Bersih 5 rally.
Maria Chin, who today filed a report about the latest death threat, says she has had no update from police about the previous two.
“This kind of act should be condemned totally and the person who did this should be put into jail,” she said. “I hope that some actions will be taken by the police to arrest the person who sent this.”
She added: “I think it’s really disgusting and horrendous for people to stoop so low to do these kinds of things to me and my family.”
On October 17, Maria Chin received a threat via a WhatsApp message stating that she and her three children would be beheaded if the Bersih 5 rally went ahead as scheduled .
Similar threats were made against Bersih 2.0’s secretariat officer Mandeep Singh and Ambiga Sreenevasan on the same day.
Habeas corpus application struck out
The High Court has meanwhile struck out a habeas corpus application by Maria Chin, who had challenged her detention under SOSMA.
Judicial Commissioner Nordin Hassan ruled that he could not decide on the merits of the application as Maria Chin had been released from detention.
Nordin said the court had received a letter from the Home Ministry’s legal advisor stating that Maria Chin had been released and the respondent would not be filing an affidavit in reply.
Maria Chin’s lead counsel, Gurdial Singh Nijar, had requested damages.
Nijar says SOSMA is an issue of national importance. A court needs to make a legal pronouncement on its scope, he says, and decide whether or not Maria Chin’s detention under SOSMA was proper or not.
“We have no option but to take this matter up on leave so that a higher court can look into it a little more closely to try to establish the parametres of this new Act.”
The Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, has already said that increasing use will be made of SOSMA, Nijar added.
The quest for change
Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius wrote in his blog today: “The arrest of Maria, in particular, seems to have generated an upsurge of public anger at the outrageous behaviour of those in power.
“That the government would treat a widow, a crusader for justice, a woman who has spent most of her adult life fighting for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the downtrodden in such a cruel, callous and capricious manner was simply beyond the pale.”
Instead of intimidating the people, however, Ignatius wrote, “Maria’s arrest appears to have strengthened their conviction that their struggle for justice, for good governance, for accountability is a righteous one and must be pursued with vigour for the sake of our nation”.
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