We, the undersigned 21 groups, organisations and trade unions, are appalled by the harassment of an environmental women human rights defender by the Pahang state government.
The Pahang government has been reported issuing a letter of demand, seeking an apology and RM1m in damages from activist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil for allegedly making slanderous statements on logging activities in the state. (Malaysian Insight, Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today, 10 February 2022).
Shariffa Sabrina, president of environmental group Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Malaysian Natural Resources Protection Organisation or Peka), who spoke about logging activities, environment impact assessments and the protection of the forests, received a legal notice that claimed her statements had subjected the state government to public criticism and damaged its reputation.
Shariffa Sabrina was asked to issue an unconditional apology to the state government through all sharing platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
[The letter] also said, should she fail to heed the notice within 14 days of receiving the letter, the state government would file a claim with the courts without referring to her as well as seek other damages.
Governments, including state governments and their ministries, agencies and officers, more so in a democratic state, should never threaten or commence legal suits against people who raise or highlight objections or concerns about issues of human rights, justice and the environment.
If the stated statements or views are incorrect, then a democratic state must simply do what is necessary to clarify the misunderstanding by the presentation of material facts, that sometimes may only be easily accessible to state.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) are usually used by corporations and other alleged human rights violators to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend unnecessary legal suits.
Many a time, Slapps are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.
Slapps are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent themselves from being victimised by prolonged Slapp actions, many a human rights defender and even media are frequently forced to ‘apologise’ or ‘settle’ despite having done no wrong.
Hence, the recent threat of a democratic state government and the earlier action of a public officer to use Slapps against human rights defenders in Malaysia is most disheartening and must end.
Lalitha Kunaratnam, journalist, human rights defender
On 12 January, Lalitha Kunaratnam, a journalist and human rights defender, was sued in the High Court by Azam Baki, the current chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), who is seeking RM10m in damages for a two-part investigative story, entitled “Business Ties Among MACC Leadership: How Deep Does It Go? (Parts 1 & 2)”, authored by Lalitha and published last October by the Independent News Service, in which she allegedly exposed possible conflicts of interest and wrongdoings of anti-corruption officers within the MACC.
Recently, on 3 February, Lalitha Kunaratnam was called to Bukit Aman police headquarters for questioning as the police investigate a violation of the draconian Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Section 505 of the Penal Code.
The police report that led to the commencement of the police investigation was allegedly lodged by a MACC senior assistant commissioner on 7 January, and this raises the question whether this is part of the retaliation carried out on the instruction of the MACC and/or its chief.
Both Shariffa Sabrina and Lalitha Kunaratnam are human rights defenders, as now also recognised by the 1998 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders).
Malaysia is also bound to protect human rights defenders, as “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or dejure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration” – Article 12(2).
What the Pahang state government is doing is certainly a retaliation against the human rights defender Shariffa Sabrina, and being a state in Malaysia, it is in violation of its duties to, among others, protect human rights defenders.
Lalitha Kunaratnam, it can also be said, is suffering retaliation from the state, that is through a federal government’s public officer, together with other public officers, and maybe even the MACC.
As such, the Malaysian government ought to speedily act to end this harassment of a human rights defender, who is also a ‘whistleblower’ who has highlighted important issues noting that the ‘problems’ of the MACC are still an active issue today.
Hence, we call:
- For Malaysia to do the needful to immediately end the harassment against women human rights defenders Shariffa Sabrina and Lalitha Kunaratnam, one by a state government, and the other by a public officer and the MACC
- For Malaysia to abolish the usage of Slapp actions against human rights defenders, which also must include the media
- For Malaysia to respect and protect all human rights defenders and the freedom of public participation, freedom of expression or opinion and the freedom of peaceful assembly
- On the government to enact needed laws that will prevent the state or its public officers from retaliating ever again against human rights defenders and whistleblowers
Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of 25 groups
- All-Women’s Action Society (Awam)
- Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet)
- Black Women for Wages for Housework
- Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
- Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (Caged)
- Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP)
- Greenpeace Malaysia
- Haiti Action Committee
- Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center
- Kryss Network
- Network of Action for Migrants in Malaysia
- North-South Initiative
- Payday Men’s Network, UK/US
- Persatuan Komuniti Prihatin Selangor dan Kuala Lumpur
- Sahabat Alam Malaysia/Friends of the Earth Malaysia (SAM)
- Sarawak Dayak Iban Association(Sadia)
- Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia
- Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy
- The William Gomes Podcast, United Kingdom
- Womens Criminal Justice Network
- Workers Hub For Change (WH4C)
- Women of Color/Global Women’s Strike
- Workers Assistance Center, Inc, Philippines