The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has condemned the conviction and sentencing of Siti Noor Aishah Atam for her alleged possession of 12 books allegedly associated with terrorist groups, an act which is criminal under Malaysia’s Penal Code.
The ICJ calls for her immediate release from detention and for the authorities to take steps to quash or reverse her conviction.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court found Siti Noor Aishah Atam guilty under Section 130JB(1)(a) of the Penal Code which prohibits any “possession, custody or control of any item associated with any terrorist group or the commission of a terrorist act” and sentenced her to five years of imprisonment.
Siti Noor Aishah Atam contended that she was using the supposedly proscribed books for her thesis as a graduate student at Universiti Malaya, where she majored in Islamic studies.
The High Court indicated, however, that they were applying the standard of strict liability to this case, meaning that the particular reason a person may have for possessing the books should not be taken into account. If a person is found to have these books in their possession, for whatever reason, he or she would be penalised under the provision.
“The prosecution and conviction of Siti Noor Aishah Atam by Malaysian authorities is a violation of her right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s senior international legal adviser for South East Asia.
The ICJ notes that while the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, any restriction must be provided by law and be strictly necessary for a limited number of purposes, such as national security. Any restriction must also be formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly.
“The law under which Siti Noor Aishah Atam had been convicted is overly vague, since nobody would know what books or other material would be impermissible. The law is also certainly overbroad – having the effect of preventing potentially important academic research,” said Gil.
The 12 books found in the possession of Siti Noor Aishah Atam have not been specifically banned by the Malaysian government. Indeed, these books may easily be bought at any number of bookstores in the country.
This unjust verdict illustrates the need for urgent legal reform, including the repeal or modification of Section 130JB(1)(a) of the Penal Code.
The ICJ also noted with profound concern that Siti Noor Aishah Atam has been subjected to prolonged detention under multiple laws, namely the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) and the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca).
“The Malaysian authorities appear to be abusing Sosma and Poca by invoking them alternately to keep Siti Noor Aishah Atam in detention. This constitutes a denial of her right to be free from arbitrary detention,” Gil said.
The ICJ had previously called for the abolition of Sosma, Poca and similarly abusive laws.
Siti Noor Aishah Atam is a former graduate student at Universiti Malaya, majoring in usuluddin (akidah) or Islamic studies.
On 22 March 2016, the police raided her residence and arrested her. She was taken into custody and detained for 28 days under Sosma at an undisclosed detention facility while her trial was ongoing.
On 25 July 2016, she pleaded not guilty and stated that the books were used for her thesis on terrorism.
On 29 September 2016, the Kuala Lumpur High Court acquitted Siti Noor Aishah Atam. The High Court had pointed to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ failure to ban the 12 books as one of the key reasons behind the acquittal.
On the day of her acquittal, she was again arrested and detained under Poca for 60 days and was subsequently ordered to be put under house arrest for two years.
In March 2017, the prosecution appealed the High Court’s decision. This allowed authorities to subject Siti Noor Aishah Atam to continued remand under Sosma. She was then detained in Kajang Prison until her conviction and sentencing on 25 April.