Death of burglar sparks heated debate on right of self-defence

Restaurant owner Zulkifli Ismail has been charged with the murder of one of two men who allegedly broke into his home. The case has been the subject of much debate both in the media and online.
Restaurant owner Zulkifli Ismail has been charged with the murder of one of two men who allegedly broke into his home.PHOTO: MALAY MAILONLINE.COM

PETALING JAYA • If a person knifes a burglar while protecting his family and property, and the burglar dies, is that self-defence or murder?

Malaysians are hotly debating the issue following a case in which a man was charged with murder after two men allegedly broke into his home in Terengganu early last month. He stabbed the duo and one of them died.

Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar reminded the Bar Council last week to educate the public about the case, saying: "It doesn't mean that if someone wants to rob us, we can kill them. This is where the Bar Council plays a role in educating the public."

The debate, raging online and in the media, centres on the case of 50-year old restaurant owner Zulkifli Ismail.

It echoes another ongoing case in Negeri Sembilan in which Malaysian Moo He Hong, 57, and his Singaporean son Moo Wee Keong, 29, were initially charged with the murder of another person in an alleged robbery. The charge has since been amended to death by negligence.

Legal experts note that while the law says one has the right to self-defence when encountering a criminal, "accidentally" killing him could change the scenario.

This is because there is a fine line between self-defence and murder.

Criminal defence lawyer Sreekant Pillai said that while stabbing a robber could be seen as using "reasonable force", if one stabs him three or four times, that might not be considered self-defence.

Senior federal counsel Ishak Mohd Yusoff cited an example of someone shooting dead a man who attacked him with a small wooden plank. The threat would not be deemed severe enough for the attacker to be shot dead.

"But if I have three children with me and you attack me with a wooden plank and I shoot you, that is self-defence... A plank can cause real harm to a child," he said.

Former Bar Council chairman Ragunath Kesavan said that courts in Malaysia would not be unreasonable when looking at fatal self-defence cases in situations like robberies.

"There have been many cases in Malaysia where the court allowed self-defence. In most cases, especially in break-ins, if you attack an armed intruder and the person dies, there is a presumption that there was a reasonable use of force," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Death of burglar sparks heated debate on right of self-defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe