Government must create police commission, pursue other major rights reforms

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Changes in Malaysia’s government must spur, not stall, human rights reforms, including efforts to establish an independent police commission, Amnesty International has said.

In a new briefing published ahead of the July Parliament session, the organisation has called on Malaysia to seize this historic opportunity to implement much-needed police reforms and at last establish the independent police complaints and misconduct commission (IPCMC), first envisioned 15 years ago.

“For years, allegations of police abuses have routinely gone unresolved in Malaysia,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Malaysia researcher at Amnesty International. “The new government would show leadership by finally going ahead with the establishment of the IPCMC. History has shown that improving law enforcement and strengthening the legitimacy of the police agency in the country will remain a fantasy unless a truly independent IPCMC is established.”

The IPCMC Bill has seen multiple refinements since it was first tabled in Parliament in July 2019. There were 24 amendments when it was tabled for the second reading in October, and the parliamentary special select committee reportedly made 13 additional amendments in December.

“Preventing police misconduct should be an urgent priority, especially when law enforcement is under such acute scrutiny worldwide,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard. “Government responses to Covid-19 – as well as greater scrutiny of police violence from Hong Kong to the United States – is a reminder to Malaysians that its government needs to implement checks against police misconduct. This is a historic opportunity to enact change.”

Police reforms

Over the years, consistent reports of abuses, including violence against people in detention and deaths in custody, have damaged the reputation of the Royal Malaysian Police. Research by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations has shown that police abuses have continued, and those responsible have not been held to account.

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Amnesty International’s briefing analyses the proposed police oversight commission, gives examples of cases of police abuse that an effective oversight body would address, and highlights areas of the draft enabling legislation that could be strengthened.

To ensure that the proposed police oversight commission is empowered to address police abuse, Amnesty International makes the following recommendations:

The Malaysian government should ensure that the IPCMC is able to prioritise serious abuses by police, including any death in police custody or as a result of police action. The proposed commission should also have full operational independence from the executive and be free from political influence, including in the appointment of commissioners.

To ensure that complaints before the IPCMC can be properly examined, the oversight body should be afforded full investigatory powers, similar to those of a police investigator and that of the current Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission. It should also have the power to refer cases to the public prosecutor for criminal prosecution and the ability to appeal decisions not to prosecute, if dissatisfied with the prosecutor’s decision in a case.

To be fully transparent and sustain public trust, the IPCMC should ensure that complaints are dealt with in a timely fashion, and that complainants are kept up to date on ongoing investigations. Civil society should play an active role in the work of the commission to bring attention to important issues of policing and provide expertise and input in reforming policies.

Finally, in order to fully realise police reforms, Amnesty International calls on Malaysia to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

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Other vital human rights pledges, from the death penalty to sedition

In addition to establishing the IPCMC, Amnesty International urges the new leadership in the country to demonstrate its commitment to human rights. A litmus test will be the progression of crucial reform processes, including the abolition of the Sedition Act and the mandatory death penalty in full.

Malaysian authorities have time and time again used laws such as the Penal Code, the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Sedition Act to target peaceful protestors.

The Sedition Act criminalises a wide array of acts, including those “with a tendency to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government” or to “question any matter” protected by Malaysia’s Constitution. Those found guilty can face three years in jail, be fined up to RM5,000 both. The act does not comply with international human rights law, and violates the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution.

In 2018, the government announced that it was to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. Since then, it has continued to observe an official moratorium on all executions.

In 2019, the government established a special committee to study sentencing policies to replace the mandatory death penalty with alternative punishments and to make recommendations to the cabinet.

Amnesty International calls on the government to ensure that legislative amendments are promptly tabled in Parliament to bring national legislation in line with international human rights law and standards, as important first steps towards fully abolishing the death penalty.

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“The new leadership of Malaysia must commit to fully respect, protect and fulfil human rights by undertaking other rights reforms that were promised to the Malaysian people in 2018,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard. “Amnesty International is ready to work with the government to ensure that an effective IPCMC is created and other important human rights reforms are implemented.”

“Passing the bill to establish an effective IPCMC would not only show that the government is serious about police reform and rule of law, but also that it is committed to respecting and securing the human rights of all Malaysians,” said Chhoa-Howard.

“Malaysians were promised police accountability at the polls in 2018. This promise must be kept.”

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