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Days of courtrooms past

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 2/8/2020 Zaharah Othman
a man wearing a suit and tie: Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as Comrade Bala, subjected members of his communist cult to brainwashing and abuse behind closed doors before his  arrest in 2013. -NSTP/ZAHARAH OTHMAN © Provided by New Straits Times Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as Comrade Bala, subjected members of his communist cult to brainwashing and abuse behind closed doors before his arrest in 2013. -NSTP/ZAHARAH OTHMAN

WHEN I started life as a journalist, I was told that the courts were probably the best training ground, and it certainly was.

You had to employ every faculty you have, from hearing every little detail to observing body language and fast writing, to record everything said.

Tape recorders and cameras were banned from courtrooms. However, having a good rapport with all concerned in a particular case, especially the court clerk, certainly helps in getting charge sheets well before the case started, with a bit of background from investigating officers and the deputy public prosecutor.

Having followed the Datuk Seri Najib Razak court case recently, diligently and engagingly covered by old hand Sharanjit Singh of the NST, it certainly brought back memories of my court reporting days.

I was transported back to that café under the tree just outside the Penang courthouse. It was my first training ground, soliciting stories from court clerks, lawyers and prosecutors while they had their teh tarik and roti canai, temporarily putting aside their differences and legal arguments. They were the days of when I was in awe of the larger-than-life defence counsel, the late Karpal Singh, and made acquaintance with a young and dashing DPP called Shafee Abdullah.

There was never a dull day at the Penang courts then. The island was fertile ground for illegal activities, such as drugs hidden in false-bottom suitcases or illegal topless dancers concealing drugs in unimaginable places. You do learn a bit about body parts in cases like that.

I was then a young and naive reporter who would get emotionally involved in cases, especially when it involved children. Of note was one Jelutong murder case, where a man was convicted of killing his children as well as his unfaithful wife. When even the police officer choked back tears as he read out the father's apology to his children before taking their life, I too gave out a loud sob, drawing attention from the stern judge.

However, years of experience toughened me up. I soon became the tough hack who sneered at life sentences with, "What, life only ah?"

You see, a life sentence would not give you the same front-page coverage as a death sentence would, with a hefty byline to go with it.

I recently asked Sharanjit how court reporting has changed over the years.

"It's crazy now. You have to file alerts even as the judge is delivering the verdict. That's how journalism is now. It is all about speed!"

Yes, it certainly has changed. Back then, you could spare time for lunch with fellow journalists before dashing back to the office to file the story. Now it's about getting the story online quickly.

It's about tweeting developments as the case unfolds, even if it means doing it in the courtroom. Such is the double-edged sword of technology.

Covering court cases in London and further in has its challenges. There have been several headline-grabbing cases involving Malaysians who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, with very grave consequences.

My first court case was at the Old Bailey and it was a difficult one. It was on the day of sentencing that I saw this old Malay gentleman in his songkok, pleading with the judge to set him free as it was, he said, the day that heaven opened its doors.

It was the day of the Lailatul Qadar, claimed the man, who was charged and convicted of child abuse. He negotiated his freedom by telling the judge that Salman Rushdie was writing his life story. By then, it was clear he needed psychiatric help more than anything.

While stories of football match-fixing exposed me to the sordid world of "the beautiful game", it was another case at the Old Bailey that put me off my food for several days.

Azura, 23, a female Malaysian illegal immigrant, was charged with the murder of a Chinese student in London. She and her Vietnamese boyfriend, said to be a triad member, were sentenced to life imprisonment. The victim was cut up, with her body parts stuffed into a laundry bag and thrown into the Thames. I could never again look at the red chequered laundry bag without it reminding me of the gory case.

Another case was that of modern-day slavery involving Comrade Bala, who brainwashed and kept captive several followers of his Communist doctrine that took us back to the 1970s and unravelled the mystery of the missing Aishah Wahab. She was among several Malaysian students and nurses who were recruited by Bala to spread his ideology.

Aishah, then a student, went off the radar and was estranged from her family for almost 30 years, living in a commune with Bala. Aishah was never called to testify against him but others, such as a Malaysian nurse who was lucky to escape, told the court of being subjected to his sordid sexual practices and physical abuse. The case, which was heard four years ago, saw Bala imprisoned for 23 years.

Covering court cases in the United Kingdom has its challenges. In Malaysia, interrogations by lawyers and prosecutors and answers by the accused and witnesses were often translated back, usually very slowly, for the judge to write down. This afforded reporters in the gallery to record every word said. Failing that, you can always request to look at the judges' notes.

In the UK, proceedings are instead mostly done in somewhat hushed tones among the bewigged barristers and judges. You'd have to keep your ears peeled for the evidence given and discussed.

Another very challenging case revolved around child abuse in Stockholm, Sweden, where a Malaysian husband and wife were found guilty of beating their children. While it was easy to follow the children's statements in English, the evidence offered by the witnesses were all in Swedish.

Malaysian journalists present took the initiative to send a note to the judge to be allowed to listen to the translation via headphones. When the prosecution objected to this, we resorted to employing the services of a Swedish-speaking Malaysian as our translator.

There have been very trying days but certainly interesting ones as each case usually opens up a world we never knew existed.

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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