Authorities must exercise restraint in MCO arrests and charges in view of high compliance
30 April 2020
Lawyers for Liberty views with concern the high number of arrests, remand orders and prison sentences for violations of the Movement Control Order (MCO). These actions go against international guidance on detention during the Covid-19 pandemic and the very purposes of the MCO, namely to implement social distancing and break the chain of infection.
The number of arrests for breaches of the MCO in Malaysia is alarming, over 20,000 to date, despite the fact that levels of compliance are known to be very high, even up to 99 percent according to the Inspector General of Police.
We are particularly concerned by cases which do not involve wanton criminal behaviour or mass gatherings, but rather minor breaches of the MCO which do not put the wider public at risk. Such cases include the single mother who was sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment for violating the MCO at a playground, by stopping to speak to two others on her way home from a local shop. Although the sentence was eventually overturned to a RM1,000 fine on revision by the High Court, this was after she had already spent 8 days in prison.
By arresting, charging and sentencing individuals without due regard to the individual circumstances of their case, the risk is that the enforcement of the MCO will cause greater hardship, trauma and risk of infection, instead of achieving its original aims. If the authorities want to have the trust and cooperation of the public, this is not the way to secure it. What is needed is consistency in enforcement, uniformity in treatment and a focus on the most aggravated breaches of the MCO.
We remind the authorities to exercise discretion when arresting and charging people, and that their powers of enforcement should be applied fairly and proportionately. There are situations in which advice or warnings would be more appropriate and still achieve the aim of public health protection.
We urge the Attorney-General’s Chambers to consider whether it is really in the public interest to bring prosecutions that result in prison sentences for individuals who have violated the MCO in minor ways.
The authorities must not lose sight of the very purposes of the MCO when enforcing it over members of the public, most of whom have never before come into contact with the criminal justice system. Overcrowded prisons and detention facilities make it impossible for detainees and staff to practice social distancing, so incarcerating greater numbers of low-level offenders increases the risk of Covid-19 for the entire population.
Lawyers For Liberty