KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia on Friday (Feb 21) dropped charges against 12 individuals, including two leaders of the country's ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), for alleged links to defunct terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a move that could open the government to criticism that it practises selective prosecution.
Security officials told The Straits Times that the government's decision could make the fight against terrorism harder in the future as evidence presented such as huge money transfers by those nabbed had been set aside.
The move by Attorney-General Tommy Thomas was praised by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a PH component party, which has been pushing for the charges to be dropped as two of its leaders were among those arraigned last year using a controversial anti-terrorism law.
In total, two DAP ethnic-Indian leaders were among 12 men who were arrested last year by the police for being alleged LTTE sympathisers and raising funds for its cause.
Exercising his constitutional powers to discontinue the proceedings, Attorney-General Thomas said although six of the accused have been charged with offences that allegedly took place between March and December 2014, government prosecutors did not see it fit to charge them six years after the alleged offences were committed.
"It is against the public interest that these six persons are tried in 2020 for offences allegedly committed six years previously. The passage of time is unacceptable for a case of this nature," he said in an 11-page statement.
On the charges relating to the other six accused concerning offences allegedly occurring in January and October 2019, Tan Sri Thomas said even if LTTE was still gazetted under Malaysian laws as a terrorist group, the defence will contend that LTTE has not been responsible for violence even in its home country, Sri Lanka, in 2019, let alone having any impact on the ordinary affairs of ordinary people in Malaysia.
Said Mr Thomas: "The link is remote, specious and tenuous. Harm to Malaysians cannot be established by the prosecution."
The LTTE was defeated by Sri Lankan authorities in 2009.
In explaining the common thread among all of the accused, Mr Thomas said they "simply" had photos of slain LTTE leaders such as Velupillai Prabhakaran on their phones or Facebook accounts.
"If such conduct can constitute a criminal offence, it would bring the law into disrepute.
"But even if there were elements of a 'terrorist act' on the part of all or any of the 12 LTTE accused by possessing, distributing or displaying such photos or Prabhakaran, it would be impossible for the prosecution to establish that they do not fall within the excluded category of Section 130B(4) of the Penal Code in that they merely constitute 'advocacy, protest or dissent'," he said.
The 12 men were charged between Oct 29 and Oct 31 last year after being detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) following a crackdown on LTTE sympathisers.
On Nov 6, the Malaysian government unexpectedly dropped two terrorism-related charges against a DAP state lawmaker over his alleged links to a Sri Lankan militant group, a decision decried by the opposition and security officials who had worked on the case.
The Malaysian Attorney-General's Office did not explain why it dropped the two charges against Negeri Sembilan assemblyman P. Gunasekaran.
This was the first time terrorism-linked charges have been dropped against sympathisers of a terror group.
Responding to the announcement on Friday, Penang Deputy Chief Minister II P. Ramasamy, who has been pushing the government to drop the charges, described it as "great news" and thanked Mr Thomas.
Mr Ramasamy told Malaysiakini news site: "The best present to the 12 detained on allegations of links to a dead and defunct organisation.
"We have been saying all along the 12 were detained on false allegations. The whole charade of terrorist charges is nothing but trumped up."
But on the flip side, an intelligence source told The Straits Times that the news came as a blow to the country's counter-terrorism division.
"All our time and effort have gone to waste. We had a hunch that this would happen, especially when he (Mr Thomas) decided to drop the charges against Gunasekaran. But it's still very upsetting," the source said.
"Since the very beginning, Mr Thomas was quite reluctant to charge them, especially the two DAP lawmakers, even though we have presented him with enough evidence to try them in court. Fighting terrorism will be harder now since this case has set a precedent," the source added.
The decision to drop the charges also did not sit well with several officers of the Attorney-General's Chambers.
Security sources had told The Straits Times before Friday's announcement that the move, if not explained clearly, could make Malaysia vulnerable to security threats. They said investigators had found substantial evidence linking Mr Gunasekaran, the other DAP state assemblyman G. Saminathan and 10 others in the group.
Malaysian counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay on Oct 13 had also revealed that financial transactions involving huge sums of money had taken place over the years with a view to revive the militant group.
But justifying his action, Mr Thomas said on Friday that the LTTE was removed from the terrorism blacklist of the European Union by the European Court of Justice for a second time in July 2017 and there was no evidence to establish that LTTE carried out any attacks after its military defeat in 2009.
"LTTE has never in its history carried out violent attacks in Malaysia," he said.