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DEVIATING FROM ITS ROLE: The Bar Council’s contentious EGM has drawn criticism over its role as an impartial body championing rights
EARLIER last week, several petty traders set up a burger stall outside lawyer Datuk S. Ambiga's house in Damansara Heights in a symbolic protest over the losses they incurred during the April 28 Bersih demonstration.
The traders, belonging to the Small-and Medium-Scale Entrepreneurs Association of Malaysia (Ikhlas), distributed some 200 free burgers to residents during the sit-in. Ambiga apparently declined the burger offer and instead told the protesters to move elsewhere, citing the "violation" of her privacy.
According to the president of the association, the traders had given Ambiga two weeks to respond to their demands for compensation of more than RM200,000, or else they would stage a bigger protest outside her house.
The former Bar Council president has insisted that the Bersih movement was not about her. But the actions of the traders clearly underscored the desperation of city folk over the huge economic cost following the April 28 demonstration.
In a hard-hitting editorial on Saturday, Berita Harian took a dig at Ambiga. "As a former Bar Council president, Ambiga should understand legal procedure and not breach it. Now that it has hit her on her own nose, she wants to look for all kinds of excuses," the newspaper said. It said Ambiga should now "get the message how much the public hated the Bersih gathering".
The Bar Council, now under a new leadership, is coming under close public scrutiny. This came hot on the heels of Friday's controversial extraordinary general meeting (EGM) over the Bersih rally, where 12 resolutions were passed almost unanimously amid booing and jeering.
Outspoken Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz has launched a verbal attack on the Bar Council over a resolution asking Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar to publicly apologise "for the actions and conduct of the police, including the excessive, indiscriminate and wrongful use of water cannon and tear gas".
"Don't dream. As the minister in charge of the law, I am telling you not to dream. Even as the sun rises from the east (sic) the government will not apologise... do not dream. We have not done anything wrong," he told reporters on Saturday.
Instead, he said, the Bar should "dissolve itself for bringing disrepute to the legal profession". He questioned the partisan stand of the Bar.
"The Bar Council should primarily be concerned with its membership, the quality of the profession and investigate complaints against lawyers lodged by the public. These are rightfully its functions, but today I see that they are more interested in playing politics."
Hishammuddin also joined in the fray, saying that the Bar Council was prejudiced in calling for the vote.
"They can ask but it was very clear even before the EGM, they were very prejudiced. It has only been a few days. It is unlikely they know exactly what happened," he was quoted as saying by an online news portal.
Bar Council president Lim Chee Wee said after the EGM that the Bar might submit a memorandum to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and engage the attorney-general, the home minister and the IGP.
The main contention is what should be the role of the Bar Council? Right now, it seems that the Bar is trying to make itself more relevant to some sections of society by taking up such causes as free and fair elections. But the question is, at what expense?
Some lawyers said perception-wise, the Bar seemed to be "leaning" towards certain quarters. Lawyer Abu Backer Sidek from the Selangor Bar called the EGM a "waste of time".
"If you are not neutral and open to other views, why call for the EGM? I had a sister who was on duty (with the Bar's observation team) and who was injured on that day, but I am not taking sides.
"The Bar is supposed to be neutral and professional," he said, adding that the council was acting like a political organisation. He called for the setting up of another Bar Council.
Arguably, Bersih is no longer a movement of non-governmental organisations. Its agenda has been hijacked by opposition parties to push their own interests.
The presence of opposition leaders such as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali and Lim Kit Siang during Bersih 3.0 was beyond doubt. In fact Anwar was clearly seen giving hand signals to Azmin just before Bersih supporters broke the police barriers.
Some lawyers also lamented the fact that as "officers" of the law, lawyers should not condone the acts of violence and the breach of a court order in order to assemble at Dataran Merdeka.
"If you break the law, you should expect the consequences. Where in the world do you see police react and behave differently when dealing with rioters," said one.
"If you go marching and break barricades in the streets in defiance of what the law simply doesn't allow, you should expect to be met by truncheons, boots, water cannon and tear gas followed by criminal prosecutions,” said another.
What is more telling is that the Bar resolutions were silent on violent protests during the Bersih demonstration.
While the Bar Council condemned the actions of the police, it must also condemn protesters who rioted, harmed policemen and damaged public properties. Also, it should not blame the entire police force for alleged brutality. Likewise, not all protesters were violent.
On another note, the Attorney-General’s Chambers should come out and clarify the role of the Bar Council as prescribed under the Legal Profession Act 1976. Has the Bar been acting in line with the provisions of the act?