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Malaysia’s backsliding on rights in UN spotlight

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Human Rights Watch notes that a turn for the worse can be seen in the repressive laws introduced and the actions taken against rights defenders.


United Nations member countries should urge Malaysia to reverse its serious backsliding on human rights at the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said today.

Malaysia’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is taking place in Geneva today, 24 October 2013.

Fresh repressive actions by the Malaysian government have eclipsed earlier reforms pushed by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2011 and 2012, and deserve the council’s attention.

“In the weeks before the UN review, Malaysia passed laws permitting detention without trial, dragged critics into court for staging protests and showing films, and continued its dubious prosecution of the opposition leader,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Human Rights Council should speak out against Malaysia’s backtracking on human rights, and set out benchmarks for improvement.”

Recent rights setbacks include:

  • On 21 October, Lena Hendry of the human rights group Pusat Komas went on trial for organising a public screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” an award-winning documentary about alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan government during the final months of the country’s civil war in 2009. If found guilty under the Film Censorship Act, Hendry faces up to three years in prison and a fine of RM30,000 (US$9,500).
  • On 6 October, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi publicly supported the use of lethal force against criminal suspects in violation of international law, effectively endorsing police tactics that have resulted in the fatal shootings of scores of Malaysians by police under questionable circumstances over the past decade.
  • On 2 October, amendments were passed to Malaysia’s Prevention of Crime Act that will establish up to two years of administrative detention for individuals merely accused of “serious crimes,” and provide for banishment to remote regions for a renewable five-year period.
  • Following general elections on 5 May, the government moved to prosecute dozens of opposition activists under the Peaceful Assembly Act for organising rallies protesting the result. Despite Prime Minister Najib’s earlier pledge to abolish the Sedition Act, his government has increased prosecutions under the act. Those charged include activists speaking at a Kuala Lumpur event on 13 May and Member of Parliament Tian Chua for questioning the motives of the ruling party during the 2013 fighting in Sabah.
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“Malaysia’s human rights record has taken an astounding turn for the worse in the past six months that should not go unnoticed by countries at the Human Rights Council,” Robertson said. “The UPR session is a moment for concerned governments to tell Malaysian policymakers to reverse course on rights.”

At Malaysia’s first UPR session in 2009, the Malaysian government signalled it would improve respect for civil and political rights in the country.

On 15 September 2011, Prime Minister Najib announced his intention to repeal the infamous Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) and the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance, both of which permitted administrative detention without trial.

Najib also announced changes to the Printing Presses and Publications Act to relax restraints on newspaper licensing, and promised to amend the Police Act to end requirements for police licences for public assemblies.

The fulfilment of these promises led many to believe Malaysia was moving towards more a rights-respecting government, Human Rights Watch said.

However, a promise to replace the Sedition Act was not fulfilled, and new repressive laws were enacted in place of the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance. The Security Offences (Special Measures) 2012 Act (Sosma), eliminated presumption of innocence and permitted detention of an acquitted suspect, sometimes tethered to a monitoring device, until all appeals were exhausted, a process that could take years.

Police permits disappeared, but the replacement Peaceful Public Assembly Law is similarly arbitrary. It prohibits moving assemblies, decrees many popular sites off limits, and requires consultation with the police before an assembly can take place. During one such consultation, the police imposed 27 conditions on the would-be marchers, including the permitted wording on banners and placards.

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Police used teargas and water cannons to break up the Bersih 2 march for clean and fair elections, and found ad hoc rationales for limiting other proposed assemblies.

Freedom of association remains curtailed, in part by the Societies Act which gives the Registrar of Societies unlimited power to refuse a permit to organisations on what amount to political grounds.

And there are laws restricting free expression in many guises, including the Film Censorship Act, criminal defamation, and contempt of court restraints.

“Malaysia’s human rights downslide occurred while it was a two-term member of the Human Rights Council,” Robertson said. “Every country taking part in the UN review should call on Malaysia to uphold the highest human rights standards, as its membership demands.”

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