Tuesday, April 03, 2007

BAR COUNCIL Chairman Against Gerakan’s call to Set up Constitutional Court (NON muslims need not appear before Syariah Court); Proposal Unnecessary

The proposal was passed as one of the resolution in the Federal Territory Gerakan convention on Sunday. He saw the move as an amicable solution to avoid non-Muslims in such cases to appear before the Syariah court.

ABOVE: FT Gerakan chairman Datuk Dr Tan Kee Kwong declared in a Tv3 interview

We want to live in this country in peace. Religion and race are sensitive issues. Our constitution guarantees the right of freedom of religion; that is very very clear. So we want, in fact we demand the right of the non-Muslims must be taken into account. And they account (we think) about 40% of the population of this country. The economy will go up and down, that is the nature of the world economy cycle. But what is more important for the long term future is we must preserve this unity and religious harmony that we have. Because that is the only thing that is holding our country together

But the Bar council on the other hand poured cold water onto the Gerakan’s Proposal. It said that the existence of the federal court and high court is sufficient to take care of the area.

ABOVE: AMBIGA SREENEVASAN Bar Council chairman response to the proposal

It is our view that such a court as proposed is unnecessary. Our Federal Court as federally constituted is perfectly able to deal with such issues as they have done so in the past with no problem. I see it as just simply a question of applying the provisions of the constitution in such circumstances which in my view adequately provide the answers necessary to resolve the issues that have arisen
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Monday April 2, 2007; STAR

Gerakan: Set up Constitutional Court for religious issues

KUALA LUMPUR: Gerakan has called for the setting up of a special Constitutional Court to deal with “various grey issues.” It said this was in view of the increasing number of cases affecting the religious, family and basic human rights of non-Muslims. This was one the resolutions passed by the yesterday. FT Gerakan chairman Datuk Dr Tan Kee Kwong, who also heads the party’s religious bureau at the national level, said many non-Muslims now felt that their rights were gradually being eroded, “so something must be done to correct this.”

“The problem exists. Everybody knows that,” he said. Dr Tan, who is the Segambut MP, said non-Muslims should never be subjected to the Syariah Court, adding that this was never the original intention of the Islamic court. He said the special Constitutional Court could be a way to finding a permanent solution to inter-religious problems which were bound to crop up from time to time. “The Government must be brave enough to tackle this problem now before things get worse,” he said. There was also a resolution calling for the removal of Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria as the Perak Mufti over the spreading a baseless SMS (alleging that Datuk Azhar Mansor had converted out of Islam) some months ago.

Gerakan secretary-general Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye, who was also at the press conference, said that there should be understanding by all parties when dealing with religious issues. He noted that while the country was not on the brink of a crisis on inter-religious issues, “we should resolve them before they do.” The proposed special Constitutional Court, he said, could be an institutional solution in dealing with such problems. In any case, such a court would take a year or two to set up, he said, adding that it was good for any Government with forward planning to consider any suggestion.
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Monday April 2, 2007

No glass ceiling at the Bar

For the second time since the Bar Council was established in 1947, a woman was elected its chairman. Ambiga Sreenevasan talks about women in law and the tasks ahead for the Bar.By Shaila Koshy

AMBIGA SREENEVASAN's election as Bar Council chairman and Malaysian Bar president on March 17 was no surprise. The shocker was she is only the second president to have the XX make-up. The first was Hendon Mohamed (1995-97). Election to the Bar presidency can be a high but one must land on one’s feet running Ambiga has discovered. “My telephone hasn’t stopped ringing,” she says laughing, when asked whether reporters had started calling. On March 22 she was swift to defend lawyers after the Chief Justice, again, blamed “popular” lawyers for delays.

While welcoming the CJ’s move to find a solution to court delays, she pointed out a Suhakam forum in 2005 had also identified other factors - acute shortage of judges and judicial officers, insufficient support staff, the method of recording of evidence and the process by which an accused is charged. Touche! More women study law today but so few join the practice – only 46% of the Bar is female. Why? “Practice is challenging but women have no problems competing with men at the Bar; it is the better argument that wins the day. “If you’re talking about the glass ceiling, women like (Datuk) P.G. Lim and (Datuk) Marina Yusoff broke it in their time. There was no question as to whether they could match any of their male contemporaries.”

No glass ceiling at the Bar but how about in the Bar The number of women partners at the traditional big firms in Kuala Lumpur is between 30% and 44%. “I am proud to say, at the Bar, gender is becoming more and more irrelevant,” she says, adding with pride the resolution to abolish whipping, passed by the Bar's general body on March 17, was tabled by two women. But while a woman has held the third highest position in the judiciary the number of judicial sisters starts to thin at the top, observes Ambiga. “Of 129 magistrates, 60 are women; Sessions Court – 83 (40); and Industrial Court – 27 (14), High Court – 48 (14); Court of Appeal – 15 (3); and Federal Court – 9(0).”
The former Convent Bukit Nanas (CBN) head girl would like to see more women run for positions, chair committees and participate in helping to change gender-biased laws. Being a woman is not a predisposition to better the lot of marginalised women but Ambiga jumped right in when she began practice 25 years ago. “Ambiga was active in the Association of Women Lawyers in the 1980’s but she was also a pioneer volunteer lawyer at Women’s Aid Organisation (set up in 1982) and helped shape the centre’s refuge policy,” says its executive director Ivy Josiah, a long-time friend from their days in CBN.

The public is unsure whether to laugh or cry: the Bar is vocal about public accountability and responsibility and yet out of the 12,336 members at the time of the election just over 3,000 voted. It was a postal ballot. All one needs is a pen!

“You're absolutely right,” she says with an embarrassed laugh but adds quickly that changing the “apathy” is a shared responsibility between members and the irony council.

Would the number who voted in the Bar election be a reflection of members who vote in a general election?
“Good question,” the mother of two says smiling. But the apathy is not mirrored in Ambiga and the council's commitment to the setting up of an Independent Police Complaints Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and a Judicial Commission (JC), resolving family issues arising from a conversion to Islam and revisiting the 1988 judicial crisis.

The Prime Minister has not crossed out the notion of an IPCMC but the government and judiciary consistently speak against a JC. Why bother?
“Other countries have changed their system. It is so critical to have an objective and transparent process. “We're not talking about employing civil servants but judges. Even judges would be happier if there is established criteria the public understand.”

Is the Bar spitting into the wind trying to get the Executive to revisit the 1988 crisis? “It is a crucial step forward in lifting the judiciary to the confidence levels it enjoyed and should enjoy. “Unless we confront the truth this issue will forever be a black mark in our history. “For the Bar, truth and justice are the first articles of our faith.” In comparison, the legal dilemma with regard to a spouse in a civil marriage converting to Islam is a “newer battle”. Referring to several civil court decisions on which court has jurisdiction after a spouse in a civil marriage converts to Islam, Ambiga says: “Telling the non-Muslim spouse to go to the
Syariah Court is a recent trend. “It wasn’t so in 1994, even after Article 121(1A) on Syariah Court jurisdiction was introduced in the Federal Constitution. We have to understand why this is happening now.”

Don't converts to Islam have the right to have their family matters determined by the
Syariah Court? “Previously, when one party was a non-Muslim the matter would ordinarily be dealt with by the civil courts. “The law as it stands provides sufficient avenue for the courts to deal with this situation. We need to get back to that. “These are constitutional issues that have to be resolved but there are also real people out there facing real problems because of this.” As the interview ends, Ambiga’s cellphone rings, it’s a reporter, wanting a comment
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Malaysians in prayer campaign for rights of non-Muslims

Monday April 2, 4:09 PM

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Hindus, Buddhists and Toaists will hold special prayers for greater religious freedom amid fears their rights in this Muslim-majority nation are increasingly under threat, an official said Monday. The prayers will be held in temples and shrines throughout Malaysia this week as part of a campaign by non-Muslim groups to press their plight. Malaysia is seen as a moderate Muslim-majority nation. But race relations have been strained by a series of controversial court cases involving the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims. A letter, released to the media Monday, will also be readout in houses of worship to outline the concerns, a council of major religious groups said.

"We issued one letter simply to get our people to pray for fairness and wisdom ... and hoping the federal constitution is respected and given due weight," council vice president V. Harcharan Singh told AFP. Sikhs and Christians held similar prayer sessions on the weekend, said the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hindusim and Sikhism. The council's move comes after a Malaysian court told a Hindu woman last month to go to a sharia or Islamic court to dissolve her marriage with her Muslim convert husband, and work out custody of their children.

The case has raised fears over the rights of non-Muslims, who argue that Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion and states that sharia courts only apply to Muslims. Malaysia's civil courts operate parallel to sharia courts for Muslims in areas of personal law, including divorce and child custody. "Sharia courts are constituted only for people professing the religion of Islam ... Non-Muslims should not be required to go to sharia courts," Singh said. "We are saying to the government that civil laws should continue to apply to all non-Muslims," he added.

The concerns reflect similar tensions last year, sparked after an ethnic Indian mountaineering hero was buried as a Muslim despite protests from his Hindu wife. Gerakan, a party in Malaysia's ruling coalition, called Monday for a constitutional court to deal with inter-religious issues, citing growing concern among non-Muslims. "The government must be brave enough to tackle this problem before things get worse," a Gerakan party chief, Tan Kee Kwong, was quoted as saying in the Star daily.

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