Bleak year for Malaysian human rights

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Human rights group Suaram has released its overview of the Malaysian human rights situation for 2010 – and it doesn’t look good.

For all Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ‘1Malaysia’ slogan, the year was scarred by controversies created by racist utterances of civil servants – from schoolteachers to the assistant Director of the National Civics Bureau (BTN). The government-controlled Malay-language media continued their racist rants on a regular basis. The government’s political will to end racial discrimination was lacking, exhibited by its continued refusal to ratify the Convention for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination.

The year started with a display of religious chauvinism and intolerance over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians in the country. A total of ten churches and several mosques were attacked or vandalised in early 2010, apparently in response to the controversial ruling by Justice Lau Bee Lan, which allowed non-Muslims to use the word ‘Allah’. In the resulting fray, Umno and Umno-linked personalities and organisations berated the non-Muslim community for trying to ‘subvert’ Islam and ‘confuse’ Muslims, even though non-Muslims in the states of Sabah and Sarawak had been using the word for generations without any protest from their Muslim brethren.

Suaram estimates that there are currently over a thousand individuals detained under various detention-without-trial laws in Malaysia, including 25 individuals detained under the Internal Security Act. Despite overwhelming public pressure, both domestic and international, to repeal these laws, the government continues to delay promised reform of these laws which violate human rights. During the year, the government has even sought to quell public protests over these laws, as was seen in the arrest of 40 people during a series of candlelight vigils around the country, demonstrating the government’s unchanging position on detention without trial.

Law enforcement agencies continued to operate with a lack of accountability and with impunity despite various recommendations made by bodies like the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and the Royal Commission on the police. The police continued the arbitrary use of lethal force in the discharge of their duties – as seen in the 17 cases of deaths by police shootings and two cases of custodial deaths in 2010 monitored by Suaram. The official government figures on deaths by police shooting in 2010 are still unavailable, but between 2000 and 2009, there were 279 cases of death by police shootings. This averages 31 deaths a year, with the highest number of police shooting deaths in 2009 (88 deaths), followed by 2008 (82 deaths)[1].

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There is further cause for concern since other state agencies besides the police, such as the MACC, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) and the Securities Commission (SC) have created headlines in 2010 through their extrajudicial roles. During the year, the inquest into Teoh Beng Hock’s death was on-going; the complaints of torture by Tharmendran against the RMAF and the harassment of journalists by the Securities Commission were worrying developments for human rights in Malaysia.

After the release of two international reports in 2009 which highlighted the collusion of Immigration Department authorities in the trafficking of refugees, the government detained several immigrations officials under the Internal Security Act. However, the Malaysian Government still refuses to ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol and has not introduced any domestic legislation to recognise the status of refugees.

The BN government continued to use repressive laws such as the Sedition Act and the Printing and Publications Act to prevent civil society and the media from raising legitimate questions. It was not surprising that Malaysia tumbled to 141st position in the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)’s Press Freedom Index for 2010. Books that were banned and seized included Kim Quek’s “March to Putrajaya” and a collection of cartoons by popular satirist Zulkiflee Anawar Ulhaque (popularly known as Zunar).

The government continued to use restrictive laws, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to deny the people access to information needed to make informed choices which affect their daily lives. This was seen in the ongoing water tariff hike issue between the federal government, the state government of Selangor and private water concessionaire Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor (Syabas). At the state level, two opposition-held states, Selangor and Penang, have a Freedom of Information Act in various stages of implementation, but the federal government has remained silent on the issue and has refused to acknowledge the need for a Freedom of Information Act. The virtual media blackout on Suaram’s pursuit of questions surrounding the murder of Altantuya and the controversial purchase of the Scorpene submarines during Najib Razak’s tenure as Defence Minister points to an urgent need for such legislation in the country.

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2010 saw several by-elections in the country, with allegations of corruption and misuse of state funds and facilities by the ruling BN government. The Election Commission (EC) and MACC have failed to take action on these allegations, the most glaring omission being the infamous “You help me, I help you” speech made by Najib during the Sibu by-election in May. A video of Najib’s speech is widely available on Youtube, but it has failed to elicit any response from the Election Commission.

Over a hundred individuals were arrested in 2010 for exercising their right to assemble peacefully. A number of peaceful public rallies were forcibly dispersed by the police, with scores of people arrested, showing a lack of tolerance by the government for any display of dissent. The most recent incident was the arrest of over 60 individuals – including Selangor state assemblyperson Dr Nasir Hashim (Parti Sosialis Malaysia chairperson) and other state law-makers – for wearing red and participating in a peaceful assembly on 5 December.

The judiciary continues to disappoint, refraining from making decisions on important constitutional issues set before it. This year saw at least two such cases – Shamala Sathiyaseelan and S Kaliammal – in which the court took the easier route in dismissing their respective appeals on technicalities, thereby denying their right to justice and ignoring important constitutional issues regarding the jurisdiction between the civil and syariah courts. Anwar Ibrahim’s ongoing trial for sodomy further illustrates the bias that some judges display in politically connected cases, with the trial judge denying Anwar’s legal team access to medical documents and records pertinent to his defence.

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Suhakam operated without any Commissioners in office between April and June, creating a backlog of complaints. This exposed the BN government’s lax attitude towards human rights protection in the country. The current team of Commissioners started off well by sending monitoring teams to the anti-ISA vigils in August and the recent water hike rally in December but some have exposed their ignorance of human rights in their comments on gender issues. The government’s continued refusal to ratify a number of core international human rights conventions and their continued refusal to adopt the commission’s recommendations or even debate Suhakam’s findings in Parliament raise serious question on Suhakam’s effectiveness. Even a Suhakam Commissioner’s movements can be restricted, as seen in the case of Commissioner Jannie Lasimbang’s conditional entry permit to Sarawak, which explicitly states that she should “not be involved directly or indirectly in activities that are detrimental to the interests of the state” or “associate with organisations that actively instigate or encourage Sarawak natives to carry out activities that are detrimental to the interests of the state”.

This recent case has also exposed the lack of seriousness of Suhakam in pursuing human rights in Malaysia. In September 2007, Suaram submitted a memorandum to Suhakam urging the commission to investigate cases of West Malaysian activists who had been barred from entering Sarawak and also cases of Sarawakians who had been prevented from leaving the state. Suhakam had promised to right this violation of human rights but has since not followed up on the case. The recent case of Commissioner Jannie Lasimbang has merely exposed Suhakam’s arbitrariness in its role as defender of the human rights of all Malaysians.

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