Government behind harsh crackdown on critical speech, says rights watchdog

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Image: freemalaysiatoday.com

Malaysia’s human rights situation markedly deteriorated in 2016, with increased arrests of government critics, expanded restrictions on peaceful assembly, and continued impunity for police abuses, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2017.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries.

In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will.

For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

“The Malaysian government has responded to corruption allegations by throwing respect for rights out the window,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By bringing a slew of prosecutions against those expressing dissenting views or peacefully protesting, the government is seriously undermining democratic institutions and the rights of all Malaysian citizens.”

Throughout 2016, Malaysian authorities used the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Sedition Act to arrest those criticising the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak, commenting on the government’s handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, or making comments on social media deemed “insulting” to Najib or to Malaysia’s royalty.

The government also used the CMA to suspend newspapers and block websites reporting on the 1MDB scandal, and has repeatedly arrested and prosecuted those involved in peaceful protests.

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In November, the authorities raided the offices of online news portal Malaysiakini and subsequently charged its chief executive officer, Premesh Chandran, and editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, with violating the CMA by uploading a video of a press conference during which a former member of the ruling coalition called for the resignation of the attorney general.

The Malaysian government has also used the draconian Official Secrets Act to shield the auditor general’s report on the 1MDB scandal – a matter of great public interest in Malaysia – from public view. In November, Rafizi Ramli, the vice president of opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was sentenced to 18 months in prison under the act for allegedly disclosing information from that report.

Civil society groups organised under the Bersih (meaning “clean” in the Malay language) coalition continued to demand clean and fair elections in 2018, when the next national poll must take place by, and other human rights and governance reforms.

These groups mounted a major public rally, Bersih 5, on 19 November 2016. The day before the protest, authorities detained Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah, then detained her under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, a draconian anti-terrorism law that permits detention without charge.

In August, the sweeping National Security Council law came into force, giving the prime minister the authority to declare security areas within which restraints on police power are suspended. Police torture of suspects in custody and excessive use of force remained serious problems, as did lack of accountability for such offences.

More than a thousand people are estimated to be on death row for various crimes and, although the Malaysian government has repeatedly said that it is considering amending the law to change the mandatory death penalty provisions, it has yet to do so.

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More than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom come from Burma, have no legal status in Malaysia and are unable to work, travel, or enrol in government schools. The lack of status leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation.

“The downward slide in rights protections that started after the 2013 election accelerated during the past year as the number of tough questions increased about Prime Minister Najib’s alleged involvement in 1MDB scandal,” said Robertson. “The Malaysian government should step back from its repressive course, bring its laws into line with international standards, and start respecting fully the rights of everyone in Malaysia.”

Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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