Compound fines under MCO will punish the poor more, say activists

The government gazetted the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (compounding of offences) (amended) Regulations 2020 on March 27, making offences compoundable.

PETALING JAYA: Human rights activists believe poor people will be the worse affected if the government decides to punish violators of the movement control order (MCO) with compound fines instead of taking them to court.

Among those concerned by the change is Klang MP Charles Santiago, who said there would be greater implications for the poor.

The government recently gazetted a new regulation allowing all offences under the Prevention of Infectious Diseases Act to be compounded instead of offenders being charged in court.

The change came in the wake of protests after citizens were arrested for going jogging, fishing or playing football within a private compound. A conviction in court would leave them with a criminal record.

Santiago, who chairs the Dewan Rakyat’s Select Committee on Human Rights and Constitutional Affairs, said there should be a change in approach when dealing with MCO offenders.

“Rich people can pay the compound fines and get away with it. But for the poor – like the men who were caught fishing because they had no food at home – it’s different,” he said.

Last Thursday, two men who went fishing in Sungai Siput, Perak, were sentenced to three months’ jail for breaching the stay-home order. They said they had done so only because their families had no food.

Charles Santiago

Santiago also told of how three refugees looking for food for their families were recently arrested and handed three-month jail sentences for violating the MCO, comparing it to the 11 joggers who were caught jogging in the Mont Kiara area last month and paid their fines at the Magistrate’s Court, failing which they would have been jailed for a month.

“The law may look innocent, but the ramifications for the poor are more severe,” he said.

Charles Hector, founder of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture, said that a fine of RM1,000 or less may not be as much of a deterrent compared to community service or prison.

“For the rich, a compound fine of RM500 or RM1,000 is nothing at all, but not so for the poor, many of whom have lost income and jobs,” he said.

“Even a compound fine of RM500 may be simply unaffordable at the moment for the poor. They need to think about their families and the bills they have to pay every month, including rental and other hire purchase payments.”

He said many of the country’s poorer citizens have no choice but to buy furniture and household appliances on hire purchase as they do not have much savings, making it harder for them to pay fines.

Hector called for normal procedures and criminal justice practices to be set aside in favour of ensuring that people observed the intention of the MCO; that people stay at home to avoid spreading or contracting Covid-19.

“When a person is found to have breached the MCO, the police should just arrest them, get their identity and contact particulars, and release them on the spot with a personal bond,” he said.

“After the Covid-19 threat has passed, the police can summon them to the police station for the purpose of investigation and proceed with charging them in court if needed.”

Santiago said that arrests of MCO offenders would place even more stress on lockups and the country’s already overcrowded prisons.

There was also a greater risk of Covid-19 being spread among prison officials and inmates.

A total of 2,294 people have been charged in court for flouting the MCO as of last Saturday.

At a press conference yesterday, Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said 554 people had been arrested for going against the MCO on Sunday alone, bringing the total number of arrests to 6,048.

The movement control order is meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It has been in force since March 18 and will end on April 14.

Those who disobey the order can be punished with a fine of up to RM1,000, or a jail term of up to six months, or both.

Those authorised to compound the offence are health ministry officers, police officers with a rank of inspector or above, and local council officers.

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