The landmark challenge being mounted by a group of natives against the Sarawak Land Code was postponed to allow the state to answer a 56-page submission and an affidavit filed by the appellants earlier this morning.“We submitted our lengthy submission on our proposal, as requested by the court, on how to evaluate and compensate for the appropriation of NCR lands if the court agrees that it is different from normal lands, as land is life(represents livelihood) to the natives.
“We have agreed to allow them time to prepare a proper submission to this,” renowned native rights lawyer and activist Baru Bian told reporters after proceedings at the Federal Court in Putrajaya.
Baru and his co-counsel for the natives, Sulaiman Abdullah, also submitted an affidavit this morning in answer to concerns raised by the respondents on why the natives took the compensation initially offered by the state and stayed silent for over three years before they filed the case.
“It concerns several facts that was raised by the other side. This is our argument of the facts as we see it,” explained the newly-minted Ba’Kelalan state assemblyperson.
Among others, the affidavit included allegations of questionable actions of state and district officials which led to the natives being improperly informed and compensated about the appropriation of their lands for the Bakun hydroelectric dam project.
The three-man bench led by justice Ariffin Zakaria allowed the respondents the postponement, though they made it clear that they will brook no more delays for incomplete or unprepared submissions.
To this, counsel for the Sarawak government JC Fong submitted that he needed more time to reply, especially to the allegations made in the affidavit.
“These are serious allegations against state officers, I am duty bound to call them up and speak to them. These are not normal allegations,” he argued.
Fong also expressed his objection to the affidavit for coming so late in the proceedings.
The court instructed him to reply, albeit recording his protest.
Ariffin then postponed the trial until June 16.
Two NCR land cases tried jointly
The case, which is in the final appeal stage at the Federal Court, consists of two NCR land cases tried jointly.
The first is a suit by Bato Bagi and five other appellants against the state government over their loss of land now under water as part of the Bakun hydroelectric dam project.
The second involves a suit by Jalang Paran against the government and a state-owned company which acquired NCR land for a pulp mill project.
In both cases, the lower courts had ruled in favour of the government, where only arguments on points of law were raised instead of going for a full trial.
The natives are demanding a full trial, alleging that the appropriation of their land via the land code is ultra vires Article 5 of the federal constitution, which guarantees the right to life.
They argue that this is because unlike ordinary land NCR land represents more than just loss of land and monetary damages but also loss of livelihood, ancestral graves, place of worship and other special considerations.
This challenge against the Sarawak Land Code is seen as important as this is the first time that the legislation is tested in court.
The land code has long been criticised as a convenient tool frequently abused by the state government to acquire NCR land.
Critics argued that the legislation is an official rubber stamp to the callous displacement of native communities purely for profit.