Memorandum to Suhakam on Batu Burok (13.09.07)

Memorandum to Suhakam from BERSIH on the Batu Burok Shooting Incident
13 September 2007

We, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections [BERSIH], hereby lodge a formal complaint with SUHAKAM on the unnecessary violence inflicted on members of public by the police in the shameful Pantai Batu Burok incident in Kuala Terengganu on 8 September 2007.

The police must bear full responsibility on the Batu Burok incident for first rejecting the police permit applied by BERSIH to hold a public rally on electoral reform, then trespassing a private premise to dismantle the stage for the rally, followed by denying the members of public entry to the private premise, discharging water canons and firing teargas towards the gathering crowd, and finally, firing live bullets towards them and injuring two individuals.
It is highly probable that the violence was triggered by the police to serve the ruling coalition’s political interest on three grounds. Firstly, BERSIH has held six similar rallies in the past 12 months, all conducted orderly and peacefully as the police then did not obstruct the rallies. Secondly, the police destroyed all recorded evidence – still pictures, videos – of the incident taken by media and later accused BERSIH and the opposition parties of instigating violence, with some dubious photos provided by the police force’s cameraman. Thirdly, no sooner than names of the BERSIH and the opposition parties were smeared in the government-controlled media, the Government has announced the ban on public rallies (ceramah) before next elections.
The police force’s conduct in the incident is completely unbecoming and uncalled for, signifying either the arrogance to the citizenry or its subservience to its political masters or both.
The scale and extent of the excessive force employed by the police on that night is unprecedented in the recent history of our country. Most shockingly, live bullets were used by undercover police personnel and two lives were almost lost. It shows that the police force, which is supposedly to defend the rule of law, does not only deny the citizenry their constitutional rights to free speech, peaceful assembly and lawful association; but is also willing to fire at members of the public who exercised their right to peaceful assembly.
There can be no greater irony, embarrassment and shame to Malaysia at her 50th/44th birthday than having police officers violate our citizens’ constitutional rights in this manner. From August 31, 1957, this land is supposed to be a free country and her residents free from arbitrary rule and denial of human rights. After what happened in Batu Burok, that promise is never more hollowed and will remain so if the police officers who fired at the members of the public may get away scot-free after violating constitutional freedom and almost wrecking two lives.
This shameful incident shows that the police force has been again reduced to a
political tool. The civil and political liberties of Malaysian citizens, essential to free and fair elections, are further curtailed to enable the ruling coalition to “win” the next general elections.
Background and Sequence of Events (from information collected by BERSIH)
1. BERSIH (a coalition of political parties and civil society groups) had planned to hold a peaceful rally in the form of a Konvensyen Rakyat BERSIH (or People’s Convention) in Batu Burok, Kuala Terengganu on Saturday, 8 September 2007 to convey their demands for clean and fair elections.
2. PAS, a member of the coalition, applied for a police permit on 30th August 2007, which was rejected by the local police on 6th September. The police rejected the application on 6th September citing reasons which BERSIH considers unreasonable as several ceramah had been held there before including a large one by Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim after his release from prison in 2004. The reasons given by the police included that the area was near housing and the Istana and would disturb tourists and the atmosphere of the area. A written appeal was lodged with the OCPD on 8th September and a final meeting with him but to no avail.
3. In preparation for the event which was to be held on private premises, the organizer erected a stage for the rally but at 5pm on the said day, the police trespassed into the said area and dismantled the stage without prior permission from the property owner.
4. The police also conducted several road blocks to prevent members of the public from approaching the said site.
5. State Police Chief Datuk Ayub rejected a further appeal over the phone about 8 pm that evening from Datuk Mustapha Ali. The police’s demand that the ceramah be moved to Rusila, which is about eight kilometers away, was completely unreasonable and tantamount to a cancellation of the event.
6. At approximately 9.40pm, BERSIH representatives and ceramah speakers including Dato’ Mustafa Ali (PAS State Commissioner) were refused entry to the site. Also present were Dr Syed Azman Syed Ahmad Nawawi (BERSIH representative), Haji Muhammad Sabu (PAS ceramah speaker), Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim (PKR ceramah speaker), YB Leong Ngah Ngah (DAP ceramah speaker) and Haji Azmi Hamid (TERAS president).
7. At that point, a BERSIH person-in-charge of security tried to remove a road cone that was blocking the traffic at that location. Then, a plain-clothes police officer pointed his gun at the BERSIH security personnel and threatened to arrest him. Thus, the BERSIH representatives and the speakers were refused entry to the ceramah site by the police.
8. Negotiations were held between the BERSIH representatives and the police, but the police insisted that the program be called off.
9. The disappointed crowd then congregated at the junction of the main road leading to the Batu Burok mosque. At approximately 10:30 pm, the police started to discharge their water cannon and fired tear gas at the people around the area. Police used violence on the crowd causing injuries to dozens and serious injury to at least four persons. At least 23 persons were detained including three journalists.
10. At approximately 12:00 midnight, a man was found to be inciting a part of the crowd, whereupon some members of the public tried to subdue him. Unexpectedly, the man drew out a gun and discharged his weapon and shot two persons – Suwandi Abdul Ghani in the chest and injuring him critically and Muhamad Azman Aziz in the neck. This man was later identified as a policeman in plainclothes and was probably a member of the Special Branch. A key question to be answered by the police is, why did this man not fire into the air even if it is true he was being threatened and instead chose to shoot directly at unarmed persons?
11. Unknown individuals then damaged traffic signals, an Idris Jusoh signboard and town council plants and burned police road cones in the middle of the road. Tensions were clearly riding high as a result of the high-handed police action.
12. Up until 1:30 am on 9th September, the Federal Reserve Unit was still using their water cannon and shooting tear gas at the people, although they began to withdraw from the area at approximately 1:10 am onwards.
13. 23 members of the public were detained by the police including three reporters. Two of them are still under remand.
BERSIH is of the view that:
• This unfortunate event would not have occurred if the police had approved the permit for this peaceful rally. The permit was unreasonably denied although despite the organizer filing the application early and submitting an appeal after the initial application was rejected.
• The police then worsened the situation by using tear gas, water cannon and physical violence when the event was not even proceeding. Of particular concern is the concerted attempt to arrest journalists and confiscate cameras and any documentation of what had happened.
• The use of plainclothes provocateurs by the police resulted in the incident where the particular officer fired live bullets directly at an unarmed crowd. This is a serious crime which warrants an immediate independent inquiry.
• It is clear that as a result of this grave provocation, acts of damage to public property such as traffic lights, signboards, police road cones and potted plants were committed by unidentified persons. It is unfortunate the police appeared to be acting under direction of political authorities in Terengganu. Instead of precipitating tragedies such as this, the police should focus on efforts to reduce the escalating crime rate in the country, which is more of a threat to the rakyat.
• This incident would most certainly not have happened if the recommendations of the Royal Police Commission Report with regard to the fundamental right to hold assemblies, meetings and processions had been taken seriously by the police. The Royal Police Commission said that the right to hold assemblies, meetings and processions “is one of the most basic and indispensable of the fundamental freedoms necessary for the functioning of a democratic society and is provided for in the Federal Constitution” (Chap. 10 – 2.3.2i).
• BERSIH reiterates it does not support violence in any form. A full independent inquiry is necessary to investigate how the police mishandling of the situation and the shooting of persons with live bullets by a police agent provocateur was responsible for provoking damage to public property.
BERSIH asks the following of Suhakam:
1. We believe that Suhakam, with its mandate to defend human rights in general, and its commitment to a free and fair electoral process – its theme for its Human Rights day celebration this year – has the moral obligation to the citizenry to do the following:
2. Use its statutory powers and conduct an urgent public inquiry into this incident, as what it did in the Kesas Highway Incident on 5 November 2000, where the police abused their power and mistreated members of the public in a peaceful assembly. An immediate public inquiry must be held to probe the facts and circumstances leading to this unfortunate tragedy.
3. Apply immediate pressure on the government to expedite the establishment of the IPCMC so that police personnel who have committed crimes and misconduct in Batu Burok would be duly punished.
4. Apply immediate pressure to the government to amend the Penal Code and Police Act and other laws so that the right to peaceful assembly in this country is fully protected as provided for under the Federal Constitution, SUHAKAM needs to act in a firm manner so that its own recommendations and advice to the government as the government’s advisor on human rights are followed and implemented.
5. Speak out against unfair and libelous media coverage in the government controlled media where no or reasonable right of reply is provided to the affected parties such as BERSIH and its component members including political parties and civil society groups.