Bar Council urges authorities to cool off on MCO arrests

The Malaysian Bar says police should resort to arrests only when there is real defiance by those who ignore repeated advice to stay indoors.

GEORGE TOWN: The Malaysian Bar today urged the police and enforcement officers to go slow on arresting those violating the movement control order (MCO), saying they will be better off being reprimanded rather than being put in handcuffs right away.

Its president Salim Bashir said the current spate of arrests, close to 5,000 nationwide, appeared to be against the spirit of the MCO laws, as detainees were being placed in close cells, further exacerbating the possible spread of the coronavirus.

He said while the bar agreed with the strict measures being taken to flatten the curve, police should resort to arrests only when there was real defiance by those who ignored repeated advice to stay indoors.

“The police and enforcement authorities should exercise restraint and caution in arresting and later prosecuting the alleged offenders. The officers should exercise their discretion fairly, assessing the situation before making arrests.

“The Bar Council is of the opinion that admonishment or a strict warning would suffice at this trying time, unless the situation absolutely warrants an arrest,” he told FMT.

Salim urged the courts to exercise their judicial discretion over MCO cases, taking into account the financial and emotional strain the public had been enduring over the restrictions.

“The courts are urged to mete out the most favourable and lenient sentences to those who defied the MCO or ran afoul of other laws by giving strong considerations to mitigation factors that surround it.

“The Bar is of the view that lenient punishment, such as a reasonable fine, without custodial sentences, will prevent one from being taken to prison where it could create opportunities for exposure of infection to or from inmates,” he said.

Salim said the authorities ought to sanitise lock-ups and have separate detention cells for social distancing purposes, with masks given to detainees.

“The arrests are leading to people being herded together. This, ironically, goes against the health authorities’ call to take preventive measures over this pandemic.

“As much as we agree and support the government in taking strict measures to stop the spread of this virus, we must be acutely aware of the present situation that we are in, and to display reasonableness in every action of ours.”

Senior lawyer Bala Mahesan said the current high arrests situation had put undue stress on the police and judiciary, when the MCO offences should be regarded as a misdemeanour at best.

He said those flouting the MCO rules should be counselled rather than being put under arrest, which would only cause mental distress, especially for first-time offenders.

“Police should take a different approach rather than arrest and charge them in court. It is my humble view that public prosecutors are going for the jugular by wanting all accused to be jailed.

“The ramification of the sentences that are being passed is going to bring about one class in society that’s going to have a conviction on their record. This is not going to bring a solution. I would urge the court to temper justice with a softer hand. A jail sentence is not going to solve the issue.”

Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, acting in his role as senior minister in the safety sector, today announced that a total of 4,189 had been detained during the MCO period which began on March 18.

He had said 1,449 were charged in court to date, with some charged with preventing enforcement officers from carrying out their duties.