The Malaysian government should stop trying to muzzle the outspoken Malaysian Bar, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The government’s proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act, which are expected to be submitted to parliament in October 2016, would interfere with the bar’s self-regulation and independence.
“The Malaysian government’s blatant attempt to silence the country’s bar shows little concern for the immense damage this will do to the rule of law in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should drop its proposed amendments so the bar remains free to choose its own leaders, act without improper government interference, and speak out on legal issues.”
Human Rights Watch said that the proposed amendments are contrary to international human rights principles and called on the government to withdraw them.
The Malaysian Bar, created in 1947, is an independent bar association whose aim is “to uphold the rule of law and the cause of justice and protect the interest of the legal profession as well as that of the public.” It is managed by a 38-member Bar Council, elected annually from among its members.
Consistent with its stated purpose, the Malaysian Bar has been an outspoken voice in Malaysia on issues related to human rights and the rule of law for several decades.
Over the past year, as the Malaysian government has engaged in a persistent crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the bar has repeatedly spoken out to criticise the government’s abuse of laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Peaceful Assembly Act.
It has also raised concerns about abusive police practices and detention without trial and challenged the attorney general’s decision to exonerate Prime Minister Najib of any involvement in the long-running scandal involving the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The attorney general’s proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act would allow the government to seriously interfere with and obstruct the bar’s actions, Human Rights Watch said. The minister in charge of legal affairs would be empowered to appoint two members of the Bar Council and to issue rules and regulations governing bar association elections.
In addition, the bill would increase the quorum needed for a general meeting from 500 members to 4,000 members, or 25 percent of the bar’s 17,000 membership, making it virtually impossible for the bar to take action at its general meetings.
As the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed in 2015, an independent legal profession is among the “prerequisites for the protection of human rights and the application of the rule of law, and for ensuring fair trials and the administration of justice without discrimination.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers call on governments to ensure that lawyers can perform all of their professional functions “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” As such, “lawyers shall be entitled to form and join self-governing professional associations,” and “the executive body of such associations should be elected by its members and exercise its functions without external interference.”
The government’s proposals contravene these principles, Human Rights Watch said.
“The government shouldn’t undermine the Malaysian Bar’s effective and principled support for human rights, accountability, and the rule of law,” Robertson said. “The global legal community should send a clear message to Prime Minister Najib that his government’s efforts to weaken the bar’s independence will only harm the country’s reputation.”