Top court decision favouring Islamic state law a ‘huge blow’ to constitution, publisher says

Ezra Zaid, director of ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, expressed disappointment with a Federal Court ruling that struck out his challenge against a Selangor Shariah law. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Ezra Zaid, director of ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, expressed disappointment with a Federal Court ruling that struck out his challenge against a Selangor Shariah law. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

PUTRAJAYA, Sept 28 — Ezra Zaid, the director of ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, voiced his disappointment today with a Federal Court ruling to strike out his challenge against a Selangor Shariah law that had deemed a book his company published as un-Islamic.

Ezra, who was charged under the disputed state law over Canadian author Irshad Manji’s book “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta”, said he is “very disappointed” with the Federal Court’s refusal to declare the same law as unconstitutional.

“I think it’s a huge blow to freedom of expression, huge blow to our Federal Constitution,” he told reporters here after the decision was delivered.

“But I think on a larger thing, this decision has reverberations towards other cases in relation to freedom of expression, with regards to the Negri Sembilan transgender case, all of these key issues,” he added.

Earlier today, the Federal Court dismissed ZI Publications and Ezra Zaid’s bid to have Section 16 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995 declared invalid, with the country’s supreme court ruling that the Selangor state assembly had acted within its powers when making the law.

ZI Publications and Ezra had previously argued that Section 16 of the 1995 state law contravenes Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees the right of freedom of speech and expression to each citizen.

They had contended that Parliament should be the correct legislative body to make laws on matters of publication, which falls under the Federal List according to the Constitution’s Ninth Schedule and is already covered by Parliament’s Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984.

But in a unanimous decision, a five-man bench at the Federal Court said Article 10 does not guarantee absolute freedom of speech and ruled that it must be read together with a list of other constitutional provisions, namely Articles 3(1), 11, 74(2) and 121.

The judges took into account Islam’s position as the religion of the federation in their decision and said among other things, that Article 74(2) gives state assemblies the power to make laws on matters falling under the state government’s jurisdiction in the constitution’s Ninth Schedule, including laws to punish Muslims for offences relating to the precepts of Islam.

Having also noted Article 11(4) which allows state laws to restrict the spread of religious doctrine among Muslims, the judges said the Selangor state assembly had acted within its legislative powers as it was enacting offences relating to the precepts of Islam, as opposed to offences on printing.

The judges concluded that the Selangor state assembly had not gone beyond its powers to enact laws on a matter that falls within the federal government’s jurisdiction, as it had only enacted on a matter within the state government’s jurisdiction under the Federal Constitution by banning the spread of wrongful belief among Muslims through publications against Islamic law and its precepts.

The court battle was initiated as a result of a raid over three years ago, when Selangor’s Islamic Religious Department (Jais) officers seized 180 copies of the “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta” book from the publisher’s office on May 29, 2012, by using Section 16 of the Selangor religious law.

The book is a Malay translation of Canadian author Irshad Manji’s book titled “Allah, Freedom and Love”.

Section 16 (1) makes it a crime for Muslims to publish, distribute or possess publications against Islamic law, with this offence punishable with a fine not exceeding RM3,000 or two years’ prison, or both.

In addition, Section 16(2) of the same law empowers the state Shariah Court to order any book, document or other form of record to be “forfeited and destroyed”, even when nobody is convicted under Section 16(1).

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