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Faced with the possibility of being served with an extradition order to return to India to face charges of money laundering, Zakir Naik appears to be playing the victim and insisting on special treatment.

First, he demanded that Indian officials come to Malaysia to interview him instead of trying to extradite him to India. Now he wants the supreme court of India to issue him a written undertaking guaranteeing that he would not be detained pending his trial. He says he trusts the Indian judicial system but has no confidence in Indian prosecutors.

What he is doing is trying to appear reasonable while making demands he knows no government will accede to. No court, whether in India or Malaysia, will give a written undertaking promising bail in advance of a court hearing. In both countries, a defendant must appear before the court and make his or her case for bail. It’s up to the judge to decide. In any case, whether in Malaysia or India, those who are charged with a crime don’t get to dictate terms to the justice system.

No qualms before

While Naik’s antics are to be expected, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir’s continued defence of Naik is not. When asked about Naik’s extradition, Dr Mahathir responded by saying that the government would first have to determine if Naik would be fairly treated in India before it could agree to his extradition.

Mahathir’s sudden concern about India’s justice system is, of course, strange because Malaysia has rarely had any qualms about extraditing or deporting foreign nationals even to countries with the most horrific human rights records. Indeed, Malaysia, even under the Pakatan Harapan government, has deported dozens of foreign nationals to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia where justice is fleeting and torture rampant. To suddenly worry about the Indian justice system, which has a far better track record than even our own, smacks of hypocrisy.

The Jho Low parallel

Interestingly, in its ongoing quest to extradite Jho Low, Malaysia itself has rejected the kind of antics that Naik is now employing to avoid extradition. Malaysia rejected, for example, Jho Low’s offer to be interviewed in a third country instead of returning home to answer the charges against him. Malaysia has also rejected claims that he will not receive a fair trial or that the government is engaged in a political vendetta against him.

As IGP Hamid Bador bluntly put it recently:“If they [Jho Low and other fugitives wanted in connection with the 1MDB scandal] think they are innocent, prove it in the Malaysian courts.” The same should apply to Naik – if he thinks he is innocent, he should prove it in the Indian courts.

Malaysia cannot have it both ways; we either play by international rules and treaty obligations or we don’t. Of course, the government ought to be concerned as to whether those extradited or deported receive fair treatment but it cannot be selective. Extradition requests should be treated as a legal matter and adjudicated impartially by our courts. The courts, not the politicians, should have the final say.

Not about legalities

But let’s face it; Naik’s case is not about the legalities of extradition but about local politics and religious sentiment. Having taken careful measure of Malaysia’s fractured political and religious landscape, Naik is skilfully playing off one segment of Malaysia’s population against another to stave off extradition. By conveniently insisting that he is a victim of religious persecution by right-wing Hindu nationalists, he obliges local Muslims to come to his defense. It is a narrative that resonates all too well in Malaysia. The more local Hindus call for his deportation (on the basis of his egregious and insulting comments about Hinduism), the more his support grows.

And having spent months building up an extensive network of political and religious connections across the country, his reputation is now such that he is virtually untouchable. Like it or not, Naik is here to stay.

How we have allowed a controversial Indian extremist preacher, a fugitive from justice in his own country, to become so revered should say something about the kind of nation we have become. We get what we deserve, I suppose.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | June 17th]