Malaysia: contempt of court action abused to harass human rights lawyer Charles Hector
The ICJ today called for the reform of the country’s law on contempt of court to prevent their abuse and for the withdrawal of the contempt action filed against human rights lawyer Charles Hector.
Charles Hector faces potential contempt of court charges over a letter he sent to an officer of the Jerantut District Forest Office, as part of trial preparation. He is currently representing eight inhabitants of Kampung Baharu, a village in Jerantut, Pahang, in their civil lawsuit against two logging companies, Beijing Million Sdn Bhd and Rosah Timber & Trading Sdn Bhd.
The companies applied for leave to commence contempt of court proceedings against Charles Hector and the defendants. They claim that his letter violates an interlocutory injunction order prohibiting the villagers and their representatives from interfering with or causing nuisance to their work.
“Charles Hector is being harassed and intimidated through legal processes for carrying out his professional duties as a lawyer and gathering evidence in preparation for trial. The Malaysian authorities must act to protect human rights lawyers from sanctions and the threat of sanctions for the legitimate performance of their work,” said Ian Seiderman, the ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director.
The harassment of Charles Hector through legal processes violates international standards such as the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers that make clear that lawyers must be able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.
Contempt of court, whether civil or criminal, may result in imprisonment and fines. Malaysia’s contempt of court offense is a common law doctrine and not codified statutorily.
“Fear of contempt charges stands to cast a chilling effect on the work of human rights lawyers and defenders. This further reinforces how Malaysia’s contempt of court doctrine needs to be urgently reformed as it is incompatible with international human rights law and standards,” said Seiderman.
The ICJ calls for the reform of Malaysia’s contempt of court doctrine to ensure clarity in definition, consistency in procedural rules and sentencing limits pertaining to criminal contempt cases. This reform should be in line with recommendations by the Malaysian Bar that the law of contempt be codified statutorily to provide clear and unequivocal parameters as to what really constitutes contempt.
In September 2019, the two logging companies reportedly obtained approvals from the Jerantut District Forest Office to carry out logging in the Jerantut Tambahan Forest Reserve. The eight villagers are from a community many of whose residents have been protesting against the logging. The villagers depend on the forest reserve for clean water and their livelihoods.
On 14 July 2020, the companies filed a writ of summons against the eight villagers in the Kuantan High Court. The writ stated that the plaintiffs had applied for an injunction order to stop the defendants from preventing the companies’ workers from carrying out their works and spreading “false information” online.
On 5 November 2020, the companies successfully obtained an interlocutory injunction order. It was reported that the injunction order prohibits the defendants and their representatives from interfering with the approval given to the plaintiffs by the District Forest Office or causing nuisance to the work of the plaintiffs in any manner whatsoever, including physically, online or by communication with the authorities.
On 17 December 2020 Charles Hector sent a letter on behalf of his clients to Mohd Zarin Bin Ramlan, an officer of the Jerantut District Forestry Office, seeking clarifications on a letter sent by the office on 20 February 2020.
The logging firms contend that the letter violated the injunction order. In January 2021, the companies filed an ex parte application for leave to commence contempt of court proceedings against Charles Hector and the eight villagers.
The hearing was postponed until 25 March 2021 at the Kuantan High Court. On 25 March 2021, the plaintiff’s lawyer opposed the presence and participation of Charles Hector’s lawyer on the grounds that it was an ex parte application, which was contested by Charles Hector’s lawyer. The Court decided to adjourn the hearing to 6 April 2021.
Boram Jang, International Legal Adviser, e: boram.jang(a)icj.orgNewsWeb stories