Tough for witnesses to testify in human trafficking court, says lawyer

Malaysia is home to an estimated 212,000 people trapped in slavery.

PETALING JAYA: A lawyer has attributed the low number of case clearances in the country’s human trafficking court to the reluctance of witnesses to testify about their experiences, in the wake of a report that only a handful of such cases have reached convictions since the court was set up last year.

Rajsurain Pillai, a criminal lawyer, said witnesses often find it daunting to be put on the stand.

He said many are ultimately no-shows in court, adding that even if they do appear, they might be afraid to speak up.

“The burden is on the prosecution to prove all the elements of the crime – no easy feat,” he told FMT.

Enforcement authorities also have to supply the prosecution with evidence and witnesses, he said.

“It may be harder to prove trafficking cases because of the elements that need to be proven.”

Rajsurain Pillai.

According to the Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation, Malaysia is home to an estimated 212,000 people trapped in slavery.

Yet, the country secured only 140 human trafficking convictions between 2014 and 2018.

The government’s special trafficking court, launched in March last year in a bid to improve that statistic, cleared 26 cases in its first 15 months, only eight of which led to convictions.

Pillai told FMT that it could take up to a year before a trial ends.

“That is only the trial,” he added. “If it goes to appeal, it could take several more years before all appeals are exhausted. Convictions are also hard to secure.

“The burden in criminal cases lies on the prosecution to prove the crime was committed by the accused beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

“This is much higher than the civil standard of balance of probabilities.”

He also rubbished comparisons with the court on sexual crimes against children set up in mid-2017 which saw 367 cases cleared in its first year.

“It is not fair to compare (the trafficking court) with the sexual crimes court in Putrajaya as circumstances are different,” he said.

Pillai said cases in the human trafficking court are also prolonged by the tendency of suspects to plead not guilty.

He also spoke of factors such as the process of case management and the availability of the court, counsel and deputy public prosecutors.

Lim Wei Jiet.

Lawyer Lim Wei Jiet, who is secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society, attributed the low number of convictions to what he called the failure of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 to define modern forms of exploitation.

He said these include psychological coercion, deception, fraud and abuse of vulnerabilities.

He also agreed on the reluctance of witnesses to testify, saying victims could be hindered by the trauma of their experiences, which would leave prosecutors with insufficient evidence.