The Malaysian government’s detention of 13 people under the Internal Security Act (ISA) contradicts Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pledge in September 2011 to repeal the abusive law and is a setback for reform, Human Rights Watch said on 21 November in a letter to the prime minister.
“The detention of 13 people under the ISA shows that it’s still business as usual in Malaysia when it comes to trampling suspects’ basic rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Najib should honour his pledge to rescind the ISA if his reform effort is to be taken seriously.”
On 14-16 November, police in the Special Operations Force (Operation/Counter-Terrorism) arrested 13 people – seven of them Malaysians – on suspicion of militant activities in Tawau division in the state of Sabah. The detainees have been linked to the Abu Omar group, a Kalimantan-based group implicated in criminal activities. Inspector General of Police Ismail Omar alleged that the 13 were seeking to “revive militant activities in Sabah”.
Malaysia’s duty to provide security for its population needs to be consistent with international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said. If there is evidence that the 13 were involved in criminal offences, they should be quickly brought to court, publicly charged with specific offences under the Malaysian criminal code, and given a prompt and impartial trial. If there is insufficient evidence to charge them with specific offences, then they should be immediately and unconditionally released.
“Unfortunately Malaysia’s law enforcers appear addicted to their power under the ISA to detain suspects without criminal charge and hold them without trial,” Robertson said.
Continued use of the ISA and other preventive detention laws runs contrary to Prime Minister Najib’s vision as expressed in his address to the nation on 15 September. In calling for the repeal of the ISA, he said that Malaysia will be a “functional and inclusive democracy, where peace and public order are safeguarded in line with the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and respect for basic human rights become a reality”.
The Sabah case highlights the need for the Malaysian government to address broader human rights concerns. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the Malaysian government to abolish the ISA, the Emergency Ordinances, and other repressive laws and not to replace them with new rights-restricting legislation. Specifically, the government should abandon announced plans to enact two new laws under article 149 of the Malaysian Constitution, which would permit passage of laws with overly broad and vague security provisions that could be used to detain people without charge and deny basic freedoms.
“Malaysia pledged to respect human rights standards when it ran for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council,” Robertson said. “The renewed use of the ISA flies in the face of those pledges.”