THE ruling that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) cannot interview witnesses beyond office hours has put the agency in a fix.
There is now a suggestion that the same judicial principle is also applicable to the police.
Lawyer-politician Karpal Singh has argued that the recent High Court landmark ruling on the MACC was also applicable to the police, but the Inspector-General of Police has shot back to say it did not apply to them.
The country’s top cop also sarcastically said all police reports should be referred to Karpal Singh after 5pm. He stressed that it would be pointless to operate police stations round the clock if police could not record statements from witnesses after office hours.
Karpal Singh has also said all witnesses who were questioned after office hours in the last three years could claim damages against the government and police.
Under the Public Authority Protection Act, a suit against the government or government body could commence within three years, he said.
The MACC and police are both law enforcement agencies and do not operate like other government departments. Theirs, and especially the police, is a 24-hour job because criminals do not operate only during office hours.
It would be naive of anyone to think so, and when it comes to dealing with criminals, one does not treat them with kid gloves. Timing is crucial when dealing with criminal cases and, many times, it can be a matter of life and death.
Take, for example, life-threatening abduction or kidnapping cases. How would the police react if these cases take place after office hours when they cannot question any witnesses? Must they wait until the next morning before they react, which could mean the victim could already be dead?
When a criminal or a witness is allowed time, they are also able to tamper with crucial evidence which could otherwise have determined their conviction.
What happens if a murder or robbery takes place after 5pm and the cops can only take a report but are unable to record a statement?
What if the witnesses, especially the traumatised ones, cannot remember important details the next morning?
In some instances, the witness may have to fly off the next day, as in cases involving foreigners, or they may be threatened by those involved. That allowance of time could enable the criminals to meet these witnesses. In short, investigations would be impeded, suspects have the chance to abscond, and evidence could be tampered with or even destroyed.
The High Court had ruled that the MACC can no longer hold witnesses for questioning overnight.
Justice Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said that Section 30(3)(a) of the MACC Act does not empower it to conduct investigations on a witness “around-the-clock” and agreed that Kajang Municipal Councillor Tan Boon Wah, 39, who filed for a judicial review, had been “unlawfully detained” by the MACC.
Tan had sued the MACC, its chief commissioner Datuk Seri Ahmad Said Hamdan and assistant superintendent Mohammad Hassan Zulkifli for questioning him for 16 hours overnight which, he said, caused him to suffer damages and losses.
Public sentiment is also against the MACC as an overnight questioning had ended with the mysterious death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock.
Public opinion is also not on the side of the MACC and the police. That is a fact the two agencies would need to rectify.
The MACC has said it would accept the court ruling but their work could be affected from now onwards.
MACC officers have privately commented that the office hours ruling would make their families happier. They are not compensated for doing their questioning in the wee hours, but are instead criticised. They do not get support from politicians and the public alike for doing their work. In short, morale is down.
The police have said the court ruling is not applicable to them but Karpal Singh has insisted that it does. So, no one is clear at this point.
If it is extended to the police, Immigration and Customs, it would mean that no work would be done after 5.30pm and during weekends.
The job of the enforcement agencies has now become harder but the work of the criminals has become easier.
No doubt witnesses must be protected and their human rights upheld but we should not forget to consider the wide-ranging consequences of the ruling in fighting crime.
It would probably be politically popular, as the overnight questioning of Teoh had led to tragic consequences and even now no one is sure how and why he died.
But the fact is the MACC has been blamed because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Teoh’s death and the black blot would be permanently on its record. It has put the MACC and other enforcement agencies in a difficult spot as there is now a lack of trust towards their operating methods.
An appeal is expected to be filed by the Attorney-General against the High Court decision. It is now up to the A-G to argue that the decision would restrict the work of the MACC and other agencies in fighting crime.
We can’t put the MACC and the police in such a situation when Scotland Yard, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission against Corruption and Interpol are sticking to the practice of questioning witnesses after office hours.