My day in court with Azmi Sharom

Yesterday, for the first time in about twenty years I was in a courtroom. The last time, I was a defendant. This time the defendant was Professor Azmi Sharom of Universiti Malaya and I was in the gallery.

Azmi teaches law. He also writes witty commentaries on local events and English football. I’ve read many of his commentaries. On several occasions I’ve listened to Azmi during public forums. I don’t think there’s anything disagreeable in the way he writes or speaks.

My impression of Azmi is that he takes his scholarship and his citizenship seriously. He doesn’t shirk from telling it like it is. He does it in a self-deprecating, non-confrontational and incisive way.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know Azmi personally. I’m not complicit in the offence Azmi is charged with committing. So why did I attend today’s court appearance and why do I plan to continue attending?

Let me say first that I do not think my attendance helps Azmi in any way. Also, he may recognize me as a familiar face, but I am sure he has no clue what my name is, what I do or why I bother with him.

I attend because I feel a need to express my outrage over what our nation has become. Our nation has deteriorated to the extent that a solid citizen – he’s no gangsta – like Azmi is harassed by the Malaysian police and the legal system while favoured racists disturb the peace with impunity.

Azmi a teacher of the law, appears to have been charged with sedition, “inciting people to rebel against authority,” for the offence of offering an opinion in public.

I wrote “appears to have been” because although I was in the courtroom this morning, I walked away without a clear sense of what Azmi has been charged with saying. I wasn’t the only one.

When we left the courtroom, some random strangers and I chatted in an elevator. We asked each other what the charge was, based upon what we heard in court.

We concluded Azmi has been charged for what he said during interrogation in a police station. This probably means he admitted to saying or writing something, but in court today it was not clear what that something is: the “seditious content” was in an attachment to the document which was read out in court; the attachment was not read out.

The time I spent in the courtroom was instructive. I saw for myself how abysmally inefficient the process is. Azmi was ordered to appear at 9.30 am. He, his legal team and many of his friends and concerned citizens came early. Those who came were Azmi’s fellow academics, students, lawyers, leaders of NGO’s, Datuks, professionals, journalists, photographers, politicians.

I counted about ninety persons in the courtroom. There were more outside. None of them wished to treat the judicial process with contempt by appearing after the prescribed time.

But the court session only began at 11.23 am when all present were instructed to either turn off or silence our phones. I was led to believe the primary cause of the delay was the late arrival of the Investigating Officer (IO) from the Attorney General’s Office. He showed up around eleven am.

The hearing took less than ten minutes. Azmi was asked to confirm his identity; the charge was read; Azmi was asked how he pleaded; he said ‘not guilty;’ counsel checked their schedules and the court fixed the date of the next mention in court; bail was set; the court was adjourned.

I am flabbergasted that the presiding judge did not chastise the Investigating Officer for being late. I am flabbergasted that the Investigating Officer did not offer any apology. I am flabbergasted that the lawyers present just took it in their stride, for “it’s often like this.” One lawyer speculated “the IO may have been in another court, maybe in the Tian Chua case which is being heard next door.”

There appears to be consensus that the process of prosecuting someone in Kuala Lumpur is inefficient. The process does not treat people with dignity by insisting everyone must be on time.

This is doubly damning because the defendant may be found innocent of the charge, or the prosecution may drop the charge – in which case the defendant and many others would have incurred a huge loss for which they cannot be meaningfully compensated.

The inefficiency and arrogance (no explanation, no apology) I observed today has not weakened my resolve to attend the hearings. Instead, it has strengthened my resolve.

If today’s example is typical, the very act of prosecution is extra-judicial punishment – not only of the accused, but of anyone connected with the accused or sympathetic to the accused. It is an unjust and demeaning process. It is doubly despicable when applied to suppress the basic human right to express an opinion.

Rama Ramanathan maintains the blog Rest Stop Thoughts

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