PETALING JAYA: If the proposed amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 do not introduce hudud law, it should be stated clearly in the legislation, said Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan at a public debate on Friday.
“The best way to protect everyone is to state it in the legislation. If you say it’s not hudud, then put it in the law," Ambiga said in response to lawyer Lukman Sheriff Alias who had argued that the amendments being proposed through the Bill, better known as RUU355, did not introduce hudud.
Lukman and Ambiga were speaking at a public debate on the motion “RUU355 amendments should be made into law” organised by non-governmental organisation Bebas at PJ Live Arts, here, on Friday night.
“There is no mention of hudud whatsoever. The amendments only seek to increase the sentencing limits of existing offences," Lukman had said.
He added that “a form of hudud” had been applied to Malaysian Muslims since before the nation’s independence and that the current amendments only seek to increase the limits of punishment for these offences.
“In Malaysia, we have about six to seven types of offences that are a form of hudud, and these have applied to Muslims for a long time, predating the Federal Constitution.
“The difference now is that sentences are being increased, but even this is not new, it has been done before in 1984,” he had said in reference to the last time the Act was amended.
Lukman and fellow lawyer Aidil Khalid had argued for the motion, while former Bersih chairperson Ambiga and social activist Haris Ibrahim argued against.
In replying to Lukman, Ambiga questioned the need to increase the sentences without specifying the offences.
The amendments being proposed through a Private Member's Bill brought by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang seek to increase the jail term for syariah offences from the current three years up to 30 years, fines from RM5,000 up to RM100,000, and caning from six to 100 lashes.
She said there was nothing wrong with wanting to empower the Syariah Courts, as Act 355 seeks to achieve, but contended that increasing the severity of punishments was not the way to do it.
“There are no other reasons given as to why you need to increase these sentences to that extent apart from wanting to empower the Syariah Courts.
“In the earlier days when we introduced the death penalty for drug-related offences, we had to provide Parliament with a solid basis for doing so. Drugs were a menace, so that was passed.
“So if you are going to propose increasing sentences, you need to explain to Parliament what is the problem you're trying to address in wanting to increase those sentences,” she said.
The prominent lawyer and activist also argued that contrary to her opponent’s remarks that Act 355 was “expressly mandated by the Federal Constitution”, there were still elements of hudud offences in the amendments which made it “unconstitutional”.
She, however, concurred that the offences in question did not include those where the punishment was stoning or death.
“In my view, this (amendment) does cover hudud offences. It wasn’t before but it is covered now. That goes against basic structures of Federal Constitution, therefore it is unconstitutional,” Ambiga said.
Lukman had earlier said that the issue of unconstitutionality did not arise as the Syariah Courts’ limits are set by Federal laws.
He also added that the amendments are not substantive law that creates offences, but only establishes the limits for the respective states to subsequently enact laws.
“The substantive law is the respective state enactments which have to be passed via a democratic process, not just through any whims or fancies,” he said.
He agreed with Ambiga that it was fair to argue about the extent of punishments being proposed, but reiterated that it was wrong to imply that the amendments meant Malaysia would have hudud.
“Anyone arguing as such is making false scare-mongering allegations,” he added.
To that, Ambiga urged proponents of the Bill to assuage everyone’s fears by making it clear that the legislation is not about hudud.
The two-hour debate became rather heated at times as both sides argued on the merits of passing the proposed amendments.
After the opening statements by all four debaters, both sides then had the opportunity to directly ask one another questions and rebut arguments.
Moderator Azrul Mohd Khalib, an activist from Bebas, then took questions from the floor and had to repeatedly calm the mixed crowd who became increasingly riled up by the arguments from both sides.