Monday, October 12, 2015

Freedom fund ready to help after court ruling on Sedition Act

Activists and civil society leaders during the launch of the Freedom Fund last May. The fund seeks to help those taken to court for exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. – pic, October 12, 2015.

Activists and civil society leaders during the launch of the Freedom Fund last May. The fund seeks to help those taken to court for exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. – pic, October 12, 2015.
A fund formed earlier this year to help those exercising their freedom of speech and assembly is gearing up to handle more requests for aid, in light of last week’s court decision that the Sedition Act is constitutional.
The Federal Court's October 7 ruling against law professor Dr Azmi Sharom means over 30 cases under the controversial Sedition Act which had been postponed will now go to trial.
The cases involve politicians, activists, lecturers and lawyers, all of whom have been charged under the colonial-era law for, among other things, criticising the authorities, organising rallies against Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders and giving academic opinions on national issues.
The fund expects to get applications from dissidents, who face charges under other laws such as the Penal Code, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and state religious enactments.
Thomas Fann, who leads the working committee managing the fund, is confident that they won’t have any problems raising money to help the defendants in such cases.
“Going by the experience in the Bersih 4 rally, Malaysians are generous when it comes to supporting ‘freedom fighters’ and those who fight corruption and intimidation’,” said Fann, who chairs citizen action group Engage.
Electoral reforms coalition Bersih 2.0 had collected RM2.6 million in public donations in the run-up to its August 29-30 rally to demand democratic reforms and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s resignation over alleged financial scandals.
The Freedom Fund has one catch: it will not support those whose actions and speech clearly incite violence and hatred among the various races and religions.
How it works
The fund first began by aiding the families of 13 PAS members who had been sentenced to 10 months in prison for protesting the swearing-in ceremony of Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir in 2009.
Zambry had come to power after the controversial downfall of the then Pakatan Rakyat government, due to a walkover by some Perak PR state assemblymen.
Fann (pic, left) said the fund had successfully collected enough money to give RM2,000 per month to each of their families for the five months they spent in prison.
“The 13 lost their jobs before they went to jail and they couldn’t support their families,” he said, adding that the case became a model for how the fund now operates.
The fund is overseen by a board that comprises some of the most prominent names in Malaysian civil society, such as Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Maria Chin Abdullah, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Tan Sri Simon Sipaun and Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin.
“One hundred percent of the money we collect goes to the cases. The administrative costs of the fund are separate and borne by volunteers who are on the working committee.”
Instead of setting an overall target, the fund seeks donations on a per-case basis and dispenses the money as quickly as it receives them, said Fann.
As a general rule, it only pays for court fees such as filing fees and bail, and since the cases are of public interest, lawyers usually give their services pro bono, said Fann.
There are exceptions to this, such as the case of Wan Sulaiman Wan Ismail, who has been charged by the Perak Religious Department for expressing different views on Islam.
In Wan Sulaiman’s case, the fund is helping to pay for a Shariah court lawyer since they could not find one who could take the case  pro bono, according to the Freedom Fund site
Countering intimidation
Besides Wan Sulaiman’s case, the fund has helped pay the bail charges for Maria and activists Mandeep Singh, Adam Adli and Fariz Musa, who were charged in connection with the March 28 #Kitalawan rally.
“We expect to be very active after the Azmi Sharom case but we are ready.”
Besides providing relief, the fund is also a counter to the atmosphere of intimidation and fear spread by these prosecutions, by showing that Malaysians will support those who are punished for speaking up against the authorities.
“Previously, when someone was charged with sedition, their friends would to come to their aid and collect money.
“Now we have a one-stop centre and reference point for anyone who feels they have been prosecuted for exercising their rights under Article 10 of the Constitution,” said Fann.
The fund is also non-partisan, and would consider helping people such as Umno member Datuk Khairuddin Abu Hassan who is being held under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma).
Khairuddin was detained under Sosma on September 23 after he started a campaign to get foreign agencies investigate claims of graft and wrongdoing in debt-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). – October 12, 2015.
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