KL govt ordered to return Christian CDs to woman

CDs, whose titles had the word 'Allah', were seized seven years ago

A SARAWAK woman who sued the Malaysian government over the seizure of her Christian CDs will finally be getting them back - after seven years.

A three-judge Court of Appeal yesterday ordered the Home Ministry to return the eight CDs confiscated in May 2008 from Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Christian from Sarawak's Melanu tribe.

The reason the ministry had given was that the cover titles of the CDs had the word "Allah", which is prohibited in non-Muslim religious material.

  • Timeline of the case

    • MAY 2008: Malaysia's Home Ministry seizes eight Christian CDs bearing the word "Allah" from Sarawakian Christian clerk Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill at the Sepang airport upon her return from Indonesia.

    • AUG 2008: Ms Bill files a judicial review against the Home Ministry and the government of Malaysia over the seizure of the CDs.

    • JULY 2014: The High Court rules that the Home Ministry was wrong to confiscate the CDs, and orders the government to return them and pay RM5,000 (S$1,800) in legal costs. The Home Ministry appeals against the ruling and withholds the CDs pending the outcome.

    • AUG 2014: Ms Bill separately also appeals against the High Court ruling over the constitutional issues not addressed by the court - including her constitutional right to use the Arabic word "Allah" for God.

    • JUNE 2015: Court of Appeal upholds the High Court ruling, orders the Home Ministry to return the CDs within a month, ending a seven-year legal battle. But it refuses to rule on Ms Bill's constitutional right to use the word "Allah".

    • JULY 2: High Court to hear Ms Bill's constitutional case on the word "Allah".

However, the appellate court did not rule on Ms Bill's constitutional right to use the Arabic word "Allah" for God. Instead, a July 2 date has been fixed for a High Court hearing on this matter.

Ms Bill had sought a court declaration that she had the right to use and import publications with the word "Allah". This pertains to her right to freedom to practise her religion and to non-discrimination.

Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat said the CDs must be returned within a month.

He also said the seizure order issued by Customs officer Suzanah Muin was not in compliance with Section 9 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

"The evidence in this case supported the finding of the High Court judge that this has been a classic case of 'ultra vires' (beyond the powers), where a public official had acted in excess of what the law had authorised her to act," Tengku Maimun ruled.

The seizure order should have been issued by the Home Minister, he pointed out.

After the Home Ministry confiscated the eight CDs at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal airport in Sepang in May 2008, Ms Bill filed for judicial review of the ministry's actions in August.

On July 21 last year, the High Court ruled the ministry was wrong to seize the CDs and ordered it to pay RM5,000 (S$1,800) in legal costs. The Home Minister appealed against the decision on July 22, and Ms Bill filed a separate appeal on Aug 18 on the constitutional issues that were not addressed by the High Court.

Senior Federal Counsel Shamsul Bolhassan told reporters outside the courtroom that he would seek further instructions from the Attorney-General on whether to file leave to appeal.

 Ms Bill's counsel Lim Heng Seng said the court's decision upholds the  sanctity  of the Federal Constitution.

The chairman of Kuching Ministers Fellowship, Reverend Daron Tan, told The Straits Times that there are still concerns regarding the use of "Allah" by native churches in the Borneo states.

In January, the Federal Court dismissed a final bid by the Catholic Church to use the word "Allah" in its newspaper, ending a lengthy legal row.

The Home Ministry first banned the Herald Malaysia weekly from using the word "Allah" in its Malay-language editions in 2008, saying use of the Arabic word may offend Muslims who make up more than 60 per cent of the country's 30 million population.

Some Muslims have accused Christians of using the word "Allah" to confuse and convert Muslims to Christianity.

But the Church argued that it has used "Allah" in its Malay- language publications for years. Borneo has a large Christian population and Malay-speaking Christians there have long used "Allah" in their prayers and worship.

asruls@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'KL govt ordered to return Christian CDs to woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe