Malaysia’s filing of terrorism and waging war charges against eight Filipinos is “illegal,” the sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo said Thursday.
Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the sultanate, told reporters that Malaysia’s move was tantamount to “usurpation” of the powers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
Idjirani said the sultanate would file a complaint in the International Court of Justice against the Malaysian officials responsible for the filing of charges against the eight Filipinos.
“We condemn this terroristic act of Malaysia because they do not own Sabah. They are only occupants. In fact, Malaysia is still paying rent to the sultanate of Sulu,” Idjirani said.
“We are concerned that eight fellow Filipinos are now being accused of an offense that carries a penalty of death. That’s illegal because Sabah belongs to the sultanate of Sulu,” he added.
President Aquino said Thursday that he had directed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to retain lawyers to defend the Filipinos in the Sabah court.
The government plans to prosecute the followers of Sultan Jamalul for causing the Sabah crisis when they return to the Philippines.
Aquino said, however, that he had an “obligation” to ensure that the eight Filipinos got due process in Malaysia.
“It’s automatic for us to provide legal assistance to any of our countrymen facing charges (in other countries) regardless of whether we believe or not in their cause,” Aquino told reporters in Naga City.
Aquino was in Naga to proclaim the Liberal Party candidates for local offices in Camarines Sur.
He said the DFA and the Department of Justice (DOJ) were focused on the Sabah crisis.
Access to detainees
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters that the President had directed Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to retain lawyers for the eight Filipinos’ defense in Sabah.
Raul Hernandez, DFA spokesman, said the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had reiterated to the Malaysian government the Philippine request to be allowed access to the Filipinos detained in Sabah.
Hernandez said the request included access to the eight Filipinos charged in connection with the Sabah crisis.
The eight Filipinos, seven of whom were in straitjackets, kept silent as they were arraigned at the High Court in Tawau town, Sabah, on Thursday on charges of launching terroristic acts and waging war against Malaysian King Abdul Halim.
A Sabah radio station reported that the suspects entered no plea as the charges were read to them in Bajau and Tausug by an interpreter in the court of Judge P. Ravinthran.
The radio station said the eight were not represented by lawyers during the proceedings.
“They were placed under tight security throughout the proceedings and seven of them were in straitjackets,” a reporter for the station said.
Arrested under Malaysia’s preventive security laws, the eight, whose ages ranged from 17 to 66, were charged in a temporary Magistrate’s Court in Lahad Datu district on Wednesday.
They face life imprisonment for terrorism and the death penalty for waging war against Malaysia’s king on conviction.
Told that President Aquino had ordered the DFA to retain lawyers to help the eight Filipinos, Idjirani said: “Well and good. That’s a welcome development.”
He added: “I thank the President for doing that. I actually expect him to do that. At least now he showed that he’s a true Filipino.”
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago on Thursday suggested that a third party acceptable to both the Philippines and Malaysia conduct a fact-finding investigation of the circumstances that led to the filing of charges against the eight Filipinos.
Santiago, a former chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations who has been elected to serve on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said determining whether the Filipinos engaged in terrorism “should not be left to the Malaysian authorities alone precisely because we’re engaged in a dispute.”
She said that if Malaysia proceeded by itself, it could be charged with “bias of justice.”
“It cannot be impartial justice if you heard only one side,” she said.
“We need a third-party inquiry and fact-finding first so that we can determine whether the complaint of terrorism has justifiable ground under international law,” Santiago said.
She said the third-party investigation could be headed by “someone whom both parties can trust . . . somebody with the . . . gravitas of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew or a former president or former prime minister from Southeast Asia who has retired with the respect of the Southeast Asian community.”
Sabah legal help
Malaysian Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who was present at the charging of the eight Filipinos on Wednesday, had asked the Bar Council of Malaysia to extend legal assistance to the accused.
But the bar president, Christopher Leong, said on Wednesday that peninsula lawyers were not licensed to practice in Sabah so the council would ask the Sabah Law Association (SLA) to provide legal assistance to the eight Filipinos.
In a statement issued later on Wednesday, the SLA said it had not been asked to extend legal assistance to the accused.
But the association said that despite its limited resources it would provide legal advice and representation to the eight as well as other Filipinos detained in connection with the Sabah crisis.
The eight, whose names were not released by the court, were among the first batch of the 107 people arrested under preventive security laws and detained following attacks on Malaysian security forces by a group of armed men led by Jamalul’s brother Agbimuddin Kiram.
Agbimuddin’s 200-odd group crossed the Sulu Sea and landed in Sabah on Feb. 9, seizing the coastal village of Tanduo to stake the Sulu sultanate’s ancestral claim to eastern Malaysian state.
The Sulu group’s presence was discovered on Feb. 12, sparking a standoff with Malaysian security forces that lasted for 17 days and erupted into violence on March 1.
Agbimuddin’s fighters were routed but managed to regroup in a tight corner of Tanduo.
Air strikes and artillery barrages from the Malaysian military on March 5 forced the group to break up into small units, which have been skirmishing with pursuing security forces in Tanduo, Tawau, Semporna and Tanjung Batu since that Tuesday.
Sixty-three members of Agbimuddin’s group, eight Malaysian policemen and two soldiers have been killed in the fighting.
The 63rd casualty from Agbimuddin’s group was killed in a clash with military troops in Tanjung Batu on Wednesday.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said a Malaysian soldier was wounded in the fire fight with Agbimuddin’s men.
Malaysian military chief Zulkifeli Zin said a woman, believed to be aged 40, was arrested following the clash with the Sulu group in Tanjung Batu.
The arrest of the woman brought to 108 the number of people arrested and detained in connection with the intrusion of Agbimuddin’s group into Sabah.
Zulkifeli said that so far Malaysian authorities had recovered the bodies of 30 of Agbimuddin’s slain men.
He said 29 of the bodies would be temporarily buried because of the failure of the Philippine government to claim them.
With the large number of the Sulu sultan’s followers killed or captured, the Malaysian security forces believe the mopping up operations to end the intrusion are ending soon, Zulkifeli said.
Agbimuddin has not been captured. Zulkifeli said military intelligence had confirmed that the leader of the Sulu group managed to slip out of Sabah on March 11 and was hiding on one of the small islands in southern Philippines.
Philippine authorities, however, deny that Agbimuddin has been able to reenter the country.—With reports from Norman Bordadora and Tarra Quismundo in Manila; Juan Escandor Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon; Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao; and The Star/Asia News Network