To further put the events of January 2, 2014 into perspective, it is also necessary to ask: Have there been occasions when Christians were arrested for practising their religion? The answer is Yes. I know because I was the lawyer for all of them.
Jamaluddin bin Othman grew up in Muar, Johore and in his late teens he converted to Christianity. He then enrolled in Far Eastern Bible College in Singapore. Upon his graduation he came to Petaling Jaya where he eventually got involved with a group of Christians discussing the prospects of sharing the Christian Gospel with Malays. By this time he was about 25 years old and called himself Joshua Jamaluddin.
In late 1987, the political and social situation in the country was very tense. UMNO and MCA had been embroiled in a bitter dispute over Chinese vernacular schools. Added to that, there were other divisive political and inter-communal issues. Earlier, PAS MPs had alleged in Parliament that 60,000 Muslims had converted to Christianity. They produced two Muslims whom they claimed had infiltrated churches that had plans to convert Muslims.
One night in October, the police rounded up over 300 people including opposition and BN politicians, social activists, trade unionists, artists, writers and Christian evangelists. This massive round up was called Operation Lallang. Why was the name given? My take is that this was the government’s exercise to catch those whom they considered to be “snakes in the grass” or lallang (the Malay word for a tall grass).
Joshua and about 10 other Christians were arrested on suspicion that they were involved in proselytising Muslims. They were interrogated by the Police and from their statements the Police pieced together their plan.
Later, five of them including Joshua was ordered by the Home Minister to be detained under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) for a further period of two years while the rest were released. The charges against Joshua which formed the basis for his detention was that he was part of a group that planned to proselytise Muslims and had participated in programs organised for that purpose.
I was appointed to be Joshua’s lawyer and met with him about once a month at the government detention centre at Kamunting, Perak. Other notables held there at that time included Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, V David and Mohd Sabu. I had advised Joshua to seek his freedom by applying to the High Court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. For many months, Joshua said that the Christians were told that the government will issue a general amnesty on Merdeka (Independence) Day on August 31, 1988. When that did not materialise, I filed a case in the Kuala Lumpur High Court for Joshua’s release. Up to that time, the High Courts in various parts of the country had been dismissing applications for Habeas Corpus.
Joshua’s case was predicated on the argument that Article 149 of the Constitution which created the ISA allow for the suspension of various civil liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, movement, etc. However, Article 149 did not mention that religious liberty under Article 11 could be suspended. As Joshua was detained for exercising his religous rights under Article 11, he was therefore wrongly detained. Justice Anuar upon hearing this argument promptly ordered Joshua’s release.
The next day, I travelled to the Kamunting Detention Centre to present the order for release to the authorities and escorted Joshua to freedom. We arrived at my house late in the night where Joshua spent the night. The next morning, a Saturday, Joshua went to the Immigration Department to renew his passport. On Sunday, he attended church for the first time in 12 months. The next day, Monday, Joshua went to the Australian embassy to apply for a visa and then boarded a flight to Australia. From Australia, he went to New Zealand and then on to England. Joshua has never returned to Malaysia.
Footnote: The other Christians who were detained in Kamunting were Chow Kai Foo, Hilmy Nor, Poh Boon Seng and Phillip Cheong. They were represented by other lawyers. After Joshua’s case, they were all released. Hilmy Nor was the last to be released in April 1989.
[Addendum: In his comment, Rev David Paul says that 27 pastors were arrested and released gradually. That is probably right. I was not sure of the exact number as no official statistics were available from the mainstream media. Under the ISA, a person was detained by the Police first for 60 days and after that if the Home Minister decides that he should be further detained, an order for a 2-year detention will be issued. Out of all those arrested by the police, only 5 as mentioned in my post were ordered to be detained for a further 2 years at Kamunting Detention Centre. The rest were released at different times during the the 2-month detention period by the police]
(See my next post for 2 other cases)