Adib inquest now a troubling, tangled web

What a mess this is becoming.

It was supposed to be a simple issue: How did fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim die? Was he assaulted or was there some other cause for his death? This is what the inquest was supposed to tell us.

But the conduct of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), a lawyer and the housing and local government ministry has made it murkier, adding to the already muddied waters created by the statements of several people in authority and the actions of some others that raised the level of racial tension immediately after the Nov 27, 2018 incident.

Adib, as we know, was a 24-year-old Emergency Medical Response Service Unit member who went to the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya on Nov 27 after the fire department received reports of vehicles in the vicinity being set on fire.

The fires were started during rioting triggered by a dispute over land on which the temple stands.

The riot occurred a day after a group of men trespassed onto the temple. Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was reported as saying that the developer involved in the dispute with the temple committee had “hired thugs” to help resolve the issue.

“”Because they hired Malays to ‘take care of things’ at a Hindu temple, you can imagine the reaction it would trigger… As an example, imagine what would happen if you send Hindus to take care of a mosque?” Muhyiddin was reported to have said on Nov 28.

The developer, however, denied hiring thugs to “initiate a riot” and that its “personnel were there to ensure that the temple’s relocation was done in an orderly manner”.

Adib was injured that night and rushed to the Subang Jaya Medical Centre by members of the public. He was later transferred to the National Heart Institute (IJN) where his condition was said to be improving.

On Dec 5, IJN chief clinical officer Dr Aizal Azan Abdul Rahim was quoted by the media as saying that Adib’s condition was “70% stable”. On Dec 12, it was reported that Adib was showing great progress but on Dec 16, IJN said Adib had suffered progressive deterioration in lung function in the previous 24 hours. The following day Adib died.

I am always curious when someone who is recovering dies.

Anyway, after the incident, there was widespread talk that Adib had been assaulted by a mob at the temple; and there was also talk that he had been knocked down by a reversing fire engine.

The then inspector-general of police Fuzi Harun, asked if Adib had been assaulted, said on Nov 29: “If he was not assaulted, how would he be in such a critical condition with so much injuries on him?” The media, and almost everybody else, then repeated this in subsequent reporting, or talk, about the tragedy.

Also, Fire and Rescue Department director-general, Mohammad Hamdan Wahid denied in the media that Adib had been hit by a fire engine, obviously suggesting that Adib had been a victim of an attack.

Then the inquest began. Interestingly, asked about Fuzi’s statement, Lew Keng Joe, the senior police officer investigating the case, told coroner Rofiah Mohamad that perhaps the court should subpoena Fuzi to ask for an explanation as to why he had said that Adib had been assaulted as none of the 61 people Lew had questioned said they had seen Adib being assaulted.

Things became even more complicated when the housing and local government ministry appointed its own lawyer to hold a watching brief for the ministry and the Fire and Rescue Department. Unfortunately, it picked lawyer Syazlin Mansor who was also representing the family of Adib.

Several questions arise from this: Didn’t the minister or her officials know they could not, on their own, hire anyone to represent the ministry or the department? As Malaysian Bar president Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor explained on June 2, an officer from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) should represent the government and its agencies unless the AG provides a lawyer by fiat to appear for the government.

In any case, didn’t the ministry know that even if it did hire someone, that person should not also be representing the family of the victim? Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin has since accepted personal responsibility, but the damage has been done.

And how is it that the DPP handling the case did not raise the alarm at the beginning? What about the coroner? And didn’t Syazlin think there might be a conflict of interest situation here?

On May 28, Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said Syazlin “was in a conflict of interest position when she agreed to act for the housing ministry and the Fire Department, as she was also acting for the deceased’s family, who had a direct interest in the inquest”.

He said: “My officers, who are performing their traditional role as counsel assisting the coroner, have informed me that Syazlin takes an active part in the inquest – often contradicting the positions that our deputy public prosecutors have taken – causing embarrassment in her capacity as the ministry’s lawyer.”

Fareed gave two examples of a possible conflict in this particular case: one is if Adib’s family were to file a civil suit against the government and, two, if the inquest finds the government responsible for Adib’s death, his family would have the right to commence legal action against the government.

Fareed felt revoking Syazlin’s representation of the housing ministry and the department would help resolve the conflict of interest and preserve the integrity of the inquest.

When Thomas told the housing ministry to revoke the appointment of Syazlin, it was already 36 days into the inquest.

That does not speak well for the competency of the AGC and the housing ministry. Even if we excuse Thomas who has his hands full handling the 1MDB and numerous other cases as well as looking at legal reforms, the question arises as to what his officers were doing.

This failure has simply fed those who have a negative impression about the government, and is likely to further muddle the situation, especially after the coroner’s decision is known.

Umno and PAS have issued a warning about what might happen if people were unhappy with the way the case was being handled.

Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri was reported as claiming that the revocation of Syazlin’s appointment showed interference in the “sensitive” case, adding: “It can be manipulated by anyone which then will turn into a time bomb that could lead to unwanted events. If it happens, the people will feel restless and they might retaliate or do things that will cause harm to the country.”

Gerakan Pembela Ummah, a collection of Islamic NGOs, was reported to have said the revocation had only led to more conspiracy theories. It warned it was considering organising a mass protest over Syazlin’s withdrawal.

This political mix might just prove to be explosive.

Just yesterday, Zuraida said she had persuaded Thomas to appoint a senior DPP to represent the ministry and the department. The question arises: Why is Zuraida in a hurry to have her own lawyer holding a watching brief when the AGC represents the interests of the government and, therefore, her ministry too?

Will having another DPP represent the ministry help to clear the confusion or cause the authorities to wallow further in mud?

On Jan 18, when dates were set for the inquest, Adib’s father Mohd Kassim Abdul Hamid said he wanted justice for his son and asked that the guilty party or parties be found.

That is what this inquest is about: getting to the truth of what happened that day and how Adib died; to determine if there was an element of criminal conduct. Everything else is a distraction that we don’t need. And we certainly don’t need any heightening of tensions.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT