Push to punish stalkers

When Jessica broke off with her abusive boyfriend, she thought that would be the end of him tormenting her.

But his harassment escalated, and he became even more obsessive about holding on to her.

He started stalking her.

He kept watch outside her apartment early every morning and at night. He’d follow her everywhere, taunting and scolding her.

He’d show up at her workplace and run her down in front of her employer and colleagues. She changed jobs several times but he always tracked her down.

He sent her endless messages to taunt and belittle her with obscenities and lewd photos.

Then, there were the lovelorn emails, begging her to take him back.

He harassed her family and friends constantly, turning their lives upside down.

When she sought refuge at a women’s shelter, he started harassing her social workers too.

“Life has been a living hell. I feel trapped and constantly on edge. It was non-stop … at least 10 emails a day and non-stop text messages calling me names or threatening to harm me. When I blocked him (on social media and email), he just showed up at my home, my office, wherever I was.

“Once I was at a hair salon and when I looked around, I saw him sitting at the reception area waiting for me. I hadn’t told anyone where I was. He’d followed me, obviously. He threatened to hire thugs to throw acid on me. He’d harass my family and friends … even the family of friends. There were times I contemplated killing myself … it was horrible to see my family and friends suffer because of me,” shares Jessica, a consultant in her 40s.

Terrified of what he might do to her or her loved ones, Jessica went to the police for help.

Armed with stacks of print-outs of his emails and messages, and photos of him lurking outside her home and office, she sought protection.

She had evidence of his relentless harassment but the police said they could not stop him from messaging or following her, as he had not physically harmed her.

Stalking isn’t a crime in Malaysia and she wasn’t eligible for a protection order.

“It was so frustrating. Did I have to appear beaten and bloodied before they could act? It felt hopeless,” she says, exasperated.

But Jessica didn’t give up. With the support of her social worker, she compiled the 300 emails he’d sent and handed it to the police as well as the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

“He thought he was being clever by sending mails from different accounts but MCMC managed to trace it all back to him. We now have a case against him that is pending. Although the charge is about the obscene emails, it seems to have stopped him from harassing me. He has not contacted me for a few months,” she says, adding that she is still vigilant.

Alone and unprotected

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Until stalking is criminalised, stalkers are free to torment their victims with impunity. AZMAN GHANI/The Star

Jessica never lets her guard down because she is fearful of her stalker. He is a violent man, and Jessica is still traumatised by the beatings she had suffered at his hands. During their one-year relationship, her ex-boyfriend had beat her up badly twice, leaving her with bruises on her face and body. The second attack was so severe, she sought protection from the police and filed a report.

But because they weren’t married, she was not eligible for a protection order. The Domestic Violence Act (DVA) 1994 applies only to spouses, ex-spouses and family members, not intimate partners.

Instead, her stalker was merely issued a warning, which only enraged him.

Afraid, Jessica hid abroad for a few weeks. Then, she moved and changed jobs. Still, he found her.

Throughout the interview with Jessica at a coffee shop in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, she was jumpy and edgy, constantly looking around nervously.

“He could be anywhere. Each time I see a white truck like the one he drives, I feel a little sick,” she says, pulling her sweater a little tighter around her as she glances at a passing white vehicle.

Jessica’s experience of stalking is not uncommon in Malaysia. But because it isn’t a criminal offence, victims are not protected by the law, says Women’s Aid Organisation advocacy officer Yu Ren Chung.

“Stalking is harmful in itself. It causes mental and emotional distress and disrupts the lives of victims as well as those around them. And we know from past cases that stalking is often a precursor to more violent crimes. Since we already know this, why won’t we stop it before it escalates to more violent acts,” asks Yu.

In February 2017, a young divorcee was shot dead by her husband in front of her law firm in Kuala Lumpur before he took his own life. He’d stalked her prior to the fatal shooting.

In June last year, a spurned lover stabbed a 23-year-old woman in Alor Setar, Kedah for wanting to break up their relationship. He’d stalked her for days before attacking her.

Stallking does not always end up in murder or violence, says Yu, but it often does.

A serious offence

Stalking is a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention, harassment, contact or other forms of conduct that causes a reasonable person to feel fear, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime in the United States.

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Stalking is psychologically damaging and draining because victims can do little to stop the harassment. – 123rf

The WAO estimates that more than 250,000 domestic violence survivors in Malaysia were stalked by their abusers. In many of these cases, stalking led to more severe forms of violence.

But stalking is still not regarded as a crime in Malaysia and victims are therefore not protected by the law.

Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim has acknowledged the need for a law criminalising stalking and promised that her ministry would look into making it a reality soon.

“If it (stalking) is not criminalised, we are giving them (perpetrators) a free pass to continue stalking before they dare to act,” she was reported as saying at the Dewan Rakyat last July.

But till now, stalking has yet to be listed as an offence in the Penal Code and stalkers are free to harass and torment their prey.

“Our laws do not cover stalking by boyfriends, ex-boyfriends or strangers even though about 50% of stalkers comprise strangers, acquaintances and intimate partners.

“If your ex-boyfriend repeatedly follows or contacts you in a manner that causes you fear – a classic form of stalking that studies have shown precedes more serious harm – you are not protected by law. Unless he explicitly threatens to harm you or actually harms you, there isn’t much the law can do to protect you.

“The DVA provides some form of protection from stalking but this protection is limited and not guaranteed. And this is only protection from spouses, ex-spouses or family members. Victims like Jessica have zero access to protection,” explains Yu.

Increasingly, he points out, more and more countries have moved to criminalise stalking. Stalking is a crime in Singapore, the Philippines, United Kingdom, India, the United States and Canada.

Two days ago, a man in Singapore was jailed a year for stalking a woman relentlessly for two years, causing her to quit her job.

An unemployed man was the first person to be convicted of unlawful stalking in Singapore under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) in June last year.

Not a case of unrequited love

Victims of stalking like Jessica are often urged to settle their “personal problems” without involving the police.

“One female officer even told me that the multiple emails sent by my stalker was a sign that he loved me so much. She urged me to try and ‘work things out’,” says Jessica, still very much in disbelief.

While it is crucial that the police and law enforcement take stalking more seriously, their hands are tied for now. Policymakers must recognise that stalking is a course of conduct that causes fear and harm.

“What I want is justice. I have no physical scars to show but the mental abuse I have been through will last longer than any physical scar. I’d had to move to another state to find work because I was so traumatised by my stalker. My mother is still anxious not just for my safety, but her own too because he has shown up at her home.

“I find it impossible to trust and I don’t go out much. Even though my stalker has not contacted me since October, I live in constant fear while he gets to move around freely,” says Jessica.

Although stalking is still not legally recognised as a crime, Yu hopes that law enforcement officers would treat it as harmful behaviour that could potentially escalate to violence.

“Now when you make a police report, only the case at hand is looked at or investigated. The many other instances of intimidation or harassment in the past are not considered. For example, showing up at someone’s workplace to harass her may not appear wrong or harmful.

“But if you see that this same person has repeatedly called or sent the victim numerous messages, follows her, harasses her family and friends … this pattern should be considered in building a case,” says Yu.