The case of Bella, a young girl with Down syndrome believed to have been neglected and abused by the founder of her welfare home, has attracted national attention with even members of the royal family and celebrities commenting after the circulation of several clips showing a defence lawyer giving his views on the ongoing trial.
Hafidzah Hassan, who is representing Rumah Bonda founder Siti Bainun Ahd Razali, came under fire after saying that it was too early for the public to make assumptions about her client given that not all of them had witnessed the trial for themselves.
Her statement sparked a flurry of criticism, with many calling her an unethical lawyer and saying that she risked being in contempt of the court as she was making personal comments about the case.
She was also found to have published part of the cross-examination involving the fifth prosecution witness. Although she later deleted the post, it remained accessible through the editing history available on social media.
Internet users were also angered by a picture of Siti Bainun’s defence team smiling outside the courtroom, with many accusing them of lacking in humanity and having no respect for Bella, who was said to have suffered both physically and emotionally as a result of the abuse.
Others asked why Siti Bainun required 10 lawyers to defend herself against the charges brought by a teenager with special needs.
Some even asked how she would pay her team given that she does not have a permanent job.
The latter question was answered by Hadfizah herself, who said she was representing Siti Bainun on a pro bono basis – sparking even more criticism online.
“It would be better to represent Bella who has no mother or father than the person whom witnesses have described as abusive and hot-tempered,” a Facebook user called Bintu Salmi said in the comment section of Hadfizah’s page.
Others told Hafidzah to refrain from commenting in public discussions and to behave professionally like other lawyers who have handled well-known and high-profile trials.
Hafidzah had said that she believed herself right in representing Siti Bainun as she trusted the story, evidence, documents and chronology provided by the Puteri Umno member.
This in turn caused uneasiness among legal practitioners who felt that lawyers should not take the public’s word on the case being tried.
Several took Hafidzah to task on social media for her remarks which they said were offensive to them as lawyers.
They also reprimanded her for wearing black robes, the formal attire of a lawyer, while making posts on social media platforms such as TikTok.
Others meanwhile voiced regret that members of the public had begun belittling the career since Hafidzah took to airing her personal views online.
Even as criticism snowballs for Hafidzah, though, a movement known as #JusticeforBella has been making waves, attracting the attention of even Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim who offered the services of his lawyer for free as an observer during the trial.
Tunku Ismail also said that his people would contact Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rina Harun about the offer.
His wife, Che Puan Besar Khaleeda Bustamam, meanwhile voiced regret and disappointment over what had befallen the girl.
“I am disappointed and tired of seeing cowards who think that they can do anything they like to disabled children and that they will get away with it,” she said on Twitter.
“You can hide behind your team of lawyers but in the end, karma will come in both this world and the hereafter.”
Siti Bainun, 30, has pleaded not guilty to two charges of neglecting and abusing the teenager to the point of the victim suffering injuries as well as emotional distress.
The offences were allegedly committed at a condominium in Wangsa Maju between February and June 2021, under Section 31(1)(a) of the Child Act 2001 which carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years, a fine of RM50,000 or both, upon conviction.