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There was barely any standing room in the court gallery but Fatimah Ismail waded through and rushed to hand photocopies from a thick book on the law of writ to Edmund Bon, one of the leading counsels for the six members of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) who had been detained under the Emergency Ordinance (EO).
Family members, supporters and pressmen packed the gallery while waiting to hear the habeas corpus application for the “PSM 6” that morning in late July. Fatimah, 24, a law graduate from International Islamic University of Malaysia, could still pull a smile when rejoining her friends at the tensed gallery.
Fatimah is not a lawyer yet. She was barely two months into her pupilage at a law firm when she was roped into the team providing legal counsel for the detainees.
“Edmund called me on the night the detainees were brought to Bukit Aman but he didn’t tell me what the matter was. I was just asked to bring the Emergency Ordinance, Federal Constitution, CPC (Criminal Procedure Code) and meet him there,” she said.
A huge crowd had gathered outside the police headquarters in Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur when she reached, and Fatimah learned what had happened.
PSM co-founder Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, vice chairman M. Sarasvathy, national youth chief R. Sarat Babu, national committee member Choo Chon Kai, Sungai Siput branch chairman M. Sukumaran and branch secretary A. Letchumanan were arrested in a series of clampdown ahead of the July 9 Bersih 2.0 street rally calling for free and fair elections. They have subsequently been freed.
Fatimah is strongly against laws that permit detention without trial, such as the Internal Security Act and EO.
She counts herself “lucky” to be involved in a public interest case early in her legal career.
She knows the case like the back of her hand, is among the first to get the latest information, and to top it all, gets to work with prominent lawyers such as Sulaiman Abdullah and her idol, Amer Hamzah.
Working on the case demanded mental and physical tenacity.
“The pressure was high. Sometimes it’s really exhausting to work all night and I could only go home for a shower before going back to work again. I could tolerate this maybe because I enjoyed working on this case or because I knew the six people in there really needed our help,” she said.
Fatimah kept saying she did not play an important role on the team; she only assisted Bon and solicitor Yudistra Darma Dorai to prepare documents, ensured everything was in order and other “small, small things”.
The PSM 6’s legal team comprised some 20 senior lawyers, freshly-minted juniors, pupils-in-chamber and interns. How the young ones got on to the list was the work of Bon, who has engaged with youths actively through groups and programmes such as LoyarBurok, UndiMsia!, MyConstitution and the National Young Lawyers Committee.
Everyone on the team worked pro bono or “for the public good” – that is, without pay.
“The initiative is to empower young lawyers. Our Malaysian education system and society have made lawyers very materialistic. It’s very hard to get lawyers who are willing to work pro bono for issues like this one,” said Bon, a human rights lawyer.
He knows how such cases can impact young lawyers.
As a chambering student, Bon visited the Kamunting detention centre for ISA detainees and in the late 1990s, he joined the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre to defend Reformasi demonstrators. Lawyers like former Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan and Subang MP R. Sivarasa had approached him to join the team, and now Bon is giving back.
Twenty-five-year-old Azri-Malek, a new lawyer, was excited to be part of the team to seek justice for the PSM 6 although he deals mainly with banking and property transaction cases.
“I have always been interested in human rights issues. Even during university days, all my optional subjects were human rights-related subjects, such as discrimination law, legal ethics, human rights and jurisprudence,” said Azri, who hails from Kubang Kerian, Kelantan.
The Cardiff University graduate is passionate about education inequality among rural Malaysians and founded a group called Small Changes, which recently conducted a motivational camp and mentoring programme for poor students.
Azri found it distressing that the six detainees were made as “scapegoats” in the Bersih 2.0 controversy.
“Their difference of ideology as opposed to the mainstream view made them easy targets as bogeyman for the rakyat. It was unfortunate that due to their small number, they were ostracised and bullied by the government,” he said.
It was unacceptable to do nothing about the detention, he said, particularly since Dr Jeyakumar has contributed selflessly to the country and helped the marginalised.
At the crux of it, young people like Azri and Fatimah want to leave their mark and contribute towards improving and building the country.
“When I was in law school, I learnt a very important principle regarding our profession. It’s called ‘fiduciary duties’. It is loosely translated to mean that lawyers, due to our special knowledge of the law, owe a duty of care to our clients. If we do not achieve the standard of care required then we will be negligent in our course of duty,” he said.
Azri sees an extension of that duty to the world.
“If we do not use our talents and energy in ending social injustices, then what value do we place upon ourselves? Surely there must be a reason why we are given such knowledge or set of skills as advocates and solicitors,” he added.
Quoting the team’s solicitor, Yudistra Darma Dorai, Fatimah said they were in this case “for justice” and her involvement was not because she is politically-partisan. The PSM 6 should not have been detained without being brought to court immediately.
“The position is also same in Islam as Caliph Umar once said, ‘In Islam, no one can be imprisoned except in pursuance of justice’. This means that imprisonment should be in accordance with the due process of law, that is he should be given an opportunity to defend himself against those charges in an open court… this is very crucial to ensure that the person is not victimised,” she said.
Being on the team to defend the PSM 6 has been a significant experience for Fatimah. She believes the legal profession is a noble one and money should not always come first.
“Article 8 of Federal Constitution speaks on equality before the law. Indeed everyone has the right to legal justice but not all can afford it. It is due to this that lawyers must have a sense of responsibility to ensure that justice is served to every person.
“To deny oneself of legal aid is to deny him of his fundamental right,” she said.
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