Human Rights Watch Criticizes Malaysia

With Singapore, Thailand and Burma under constant scrutiny for allegations of widespread human rights violations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has been largely ignored. But Human Rights Watch's new World Report, issued earlier this month, has found that the country continues to let national security concerns trump protection of fundamental human rights."

"Hopes that Malaysia's human rights climate would improve following elections in March 2008 proved unfounded," the report says. "The ruling National Front coalition lost the two thirds parliamentary majority it had enjoyed since Malaysia became independent in 1957 but was still in power at this writing. Nonetheless, the report says, the Barisan's leaders "continue to insist that Malaysia's multiethnic society is too fragile to sustain genuine freedom of assembly and expression or full due process rights for all suspects. The government continues to use outdated repressive laws and regulations to silence its critics and extend its rule."

The report comes close to accusing the government of trumping up charges of sexual abuse against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, now leading the opposition coalition People's Alliance, saying that "In what was widely viewed as a politically motivated attempt to discredit him, police charged him with consensual sexual relations with a male aide in August 2008."

Also, the non-governmental organization criticizes the government for using the Internal Security Act to detain three government critics in 2008 -- Raja Petra Kumaruddin, founder and editor of Malaysia Today, political figure Teresa Kok and Tan Hoon Cheng, a Sin Chew Daily reporter, All three have since been released, although Raja Petra still faces charges of sedition.

In particular, according to the report, the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance, enacted to combat communist challenges in the 1960s and 1970s, have been used decades after the emergencies faded to "undermine fundamental rights and liberties such as freedom of assembly, expression, and the right to due process.

The government, the report says, has been busily strengthening the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat, or People's Volunteer Corps, and giving it sweeping new powers to arrest and detain undocumented migrants and criminal suspects although the half-million-strong paramilitary organization is untrained.

Even documented migrant workers, particularly domestic workers, lack protection under the law and face a range of abuses, the report says. .

Under the Internal Security Act, the report continues, anybody who the government perceives as a threat to national security or regarded as stirring up ethnic or religious "dissonance" can be detained under the ISA and in effect held indefinitely without trial.

In practice, the report says, the ISA "has served as an excuse to silence government critics through the use of open-ended ISA incarceration." It cites the arrest of five Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), activists after a rally to draw attention to economic and educational discrimination against ethnic Indians in 2007, allegedly because Hindraf posed a threat to national security.

Despite the fact that as of last September no evidence had been presented to support the allegations, the five Hindu leaders remained under ISA detention.

Other political figures arrested under the law in the past have included Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition as well as Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, and Lim Guan Eng, all leaders of the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party.

The government has also threatened to use the ISA against web bloggers and activist leaders to limit freedom of expression and to put an end to street protests, although it hasn't done so yet. Nonetheless, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department said that "the government would not hesitate to use the Internal Security Act against bloggers," the report continues.

In an earlier report, Human Rights Watch cited as "somewhat positive" the fact that Zaid Ibrahim, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of legal affairs and judicial reform, said in May 2008 that he planned to review the Internal Security Act. Zaid, however, has since been sacked as minister and later in effect driven out of the United Malays National Organisation, the Malay-dominated leading party in the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, for questioning racial inequality in the country.

The world report and the previous one pose a broad series of recommendations, including abolishment of the ISA and judicial review of all the cases of individuals held under it, to be tried under international standards.

Malaysia should also "ratify core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Immediately begin the process of bringing domestic law into conformity with these international instruments.

RELA should be abolished and only professional security forces, i.e. immigration, police and prison authorities, should be tasked with apprehension of undocumented migrants and the management and security of immigration detention centers.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its additional protocol should be ratified and domestic law and policy should be brought into conformity with the convention.

The reports make a long series of other recommendations.

The full documents can be found here: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/wr2009_web.pdf

and here: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/HRW%20Malaysia%20UPR%202008.pdf