KUALA LUMPUR: Activists today slammed the latest Court of Appeal ruling which essentially states that the right of Malaysian citizens to travel overseas is at the absolute discretion of the government.
Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said he was shocked by the decision of the appellate court, which gives the immigration authorities carte blanche powers to decide as they please to ban anyone from travelling without giving any reasons or justification.
“That cannot be right if we are living in a parliamentary democracy with constitutional rights.
“It is extremely disappointing for the court to interpret constitutional rights so restrictively when it should be the other way around,” he told FMT today.
Paulsen was commenting on the judgment delivered by justice Idrus Harun, who, in dismissing Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua’s appeal against his ban, said Article 5 of the Federal Constitution on the right to liberty excluded the right to travel abroad.
Idrus said the issuance of passports to citizens to travel abroad was a privilege accorded by the government.
He said the term “personal liberty” in Article 5 of the Malaysian constitution had to be construed narrowly and was confined to the mounting of any challenge against the authorities for unlawful detention of a person.
Paulsen said the ramifications of this ruling were extremely serious as the authorities could now ban anyone without providing reasons or justification.
He said in the cases of Pua, Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah, activist Hishamuddin Rais and cartoonist Zunar, who are also political opponents of the government, they would expect the courts in these cases to at least demand that the authorities explain their action in imposing a travel ban.
“Otherwise, it should be inferred that there are no good reasons or abuse of power.”
Maria, who was banned from travelling to South Korea to accept a human rights award on behalf of Bersih 2.0, said travel bans were an affront to their freedom of movement.
“The ruling is disappointing, not just for me, Tony Pua or Zunar, but for everyone.
“We get invited to go for events to speak. It is our right that is affected.”
She noted that the ban also affects freedom of expression and queried what the government was afraid of.
“If you do not agree, debate with us. Unfortunately, no such culture exists here.
“How they react to dissenting voices is to ban, arrest, harass or threaten us.
“It is very disappointing. Here, we are fighting for a functioning democracy,” she said.
Maria, who is also challenging her own travel ban, said the onus was on the court to look into the contradictions between the Federal Constitution and immigration laws, but expressed her regret that the courts were not doing so.
Anti-corruption activist Cynthia Gabriel said she was of the view that travel bans run contrary to the basic right to the freedom to move about.
“It is arbitrary and a total abuse of power.
“Worse, it is selectively applied in this case on a legitimate and elected opposition,” she said.
Pua dragged the authorities to court after he was prevented from leaving the country at the KL International Airport 2 on July 2, 2015.
The DAP national publicity chief was supposed to go to Yogyakarta that day using his passport, which was valid until April 23, 2020.
He claims the decision was ineffective under the law as it was a contradiction in terms of his legitimate right to travel abroad using his valid passport.
The High Court last year, in dismissing Pua’s judicial review, held that the travel ban on him was valid.
Last year, another Court of Appeal also ruled that former Malaysian Bar president Ambiga Sreenevasan’s travel ban to Sabah was legal because Malaysia’s highest court had ruled that the judiciary could not inquire into why such a decision was made.
Ivy Chong contributed to this article.