Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Malaysia

Political context

While 2007 marked the 50th anniversary of the independence of Malaysia, during which time the Government wanted to emphasise its strong economic development, no significant progress has been made in terms of the protection and promotion of human rights. In particular, the freedoms of expression and assembly have continued to deteriorate, the judiciary is still characterised by its lack of independence, and the Government has continued to use emergency laws that undermine fundamental freedoms, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960, which allows for detention without trial, and the Emergency Ordinance (EO). The number of deaths during detention also remained high in 2007: in November 2007, the NGO SUARA Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) reported 10 deaths in custody, with no investigation opened into them.

When he came to power in 2003, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi promised to fight corruption. However, in 2007, several cases of corruption broke out publicly but the perpetrators were not prosecuted. Allegations of corruption were thus brought against the Deputy Minister of Internal Security Mr. Johari Baharum, the Inspector General of Police Mr. Musa Hassan, and the Head of the Department of Commercial Crimes Mr. Ramli Yusuff.

Migrants and refugees have also continued to be subjected to grave violations of their human rights. In particular, the People's Volunteer Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat – RELA), a group which was given broad powers in 2005 to arrest migrants and refugees, continued its large-scale raids throughout the year, despite overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in detention camps.

Obstacles to freedom of expression and repression against cyber-dissidents

While the Government continues to closely monitor the mass media, the year 2007 experienced a wave of web censorship and harassment by the authorities against "cyber-dissidents", who were subjected to arbitrary arrests and police interrogations, or were at risk of being prosecuted on the basis of the ISA. For example, on July 24, 2007, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Mr. Nazri Abdul Aziz, said the Government would not hesitate to use the ISA, the Sedition Act of 19481 and Section 121b of the Criminal Code2 to punish cyber-dissidents who deal with "too sensitive issues". It is feared that this repression might be growing with the approach of elections scheduled for early 2008. For instance, Mr. Nathaniel Tan was detained for four days in July 2007 for having posted a link on his blog to a website publishing information described as a "State secret", in connection with a corruption case involving Mr. Johari Baharum. He faces a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment. The English-language newspaper New Straits Times, which supports the ruling party, decided in August 2007 to stop collaboration with Ms. Zainah Anwar, an activist for the rights of Muslim women and the Executive Director of the association Sisters in Islam (SIS), whose column addressed the issue of equality and justice for Muslim women.3

Non-governmental organisations also experience restrictions to their freedom of expression. For example, on May 15, 2007, ten copies of a book written by a member of the board of SUARAM, May 13: Declassified documents of the Malaysian Riots of 1969, were seized by agents of the Department of Homeland Security in a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur for "verification". The book denounced the complicity of the State during the race riots of May 13, 1969.

Freedom of peaceful assembly under siege from all sides

In 2007, the Malaysian Government conducted an almost systematic repression of all public demonstrations that criticised governmental policy, particularly with regard to human rights. Peaceful rallies relating to the right to housing, the fight against impunity and corruption and the rights of Indian minorities have been violently dispersed by the police several times.

Thus, a demonstration organised on November 25, 2007 by Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) to protest against Government policies marginalising and discriminating against the Indian community was dispersed with tear gas and water cannons. HINDRAF had announced its intention to deliver a memorandum to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur to denounce the exploitation of Indians as a result of colonial and post-colonial oppression. More than 400 demonstrators were arrested, of which 99 were charged with "participation in an illegal meeting" and "riots". Furthermore, after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declared on November 27, 2007 that the ISA was likely to be used against any demonstrator arrested, five HINDRAF leaders were arrested on December 13, 2007 and prosecuted on the basis of Section 8 (1) of ISA. Similarly, nine human rights lawyers were arrested on December 9, 2007 while trying to demonstrate in a celebration of International Human Rights Day. Accused of "participation in an illegal assembly" and "disobeying police orders" to disperse, they face up to two and a half years in jail.

In March 2007, the Commission on Human Rights of Malaysia (Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia – SUHAKAM) concluded its report on the violent repression of a demonstration on May 28, 2006 against the increase in the price of oil in Kuala Lumpur, more commonly known as "Bloody Sunday".4 While the report recommended that several police officers should be prosecuted, no criminal proceedings had been initiated in late 2007. Conversely, on November 9, 2007, Mr. Siva Subramaniam, SUHAKAM Commissioner, said that the organisers of the demonstration on November 10, 2007 should have applied to the police for a permit, thus contradicting one of the recommendations of the Commission that "peaceful demonstrations should be allowed without having to apply for permits". In addition, the Commissioner subsequently claimed that the police had not used violence and had acted in a professional manner at the event, despite numerous reports that the police had violently dispersed the crowd. Subsequently, the Commission explained that the statement only reflected the personal opinion of the Commissioner and not the official position of SUHAKAM with regard to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Obstacles for defenders of economic, social and cultural rights

Lack of freedom of association for defenders of the right to work

While the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) was accused by the Deputy Prime Minister for Human Resources, Mr. Abdul Rahman Bakar, of being a "tool for the opposition parties", reflecting the difficult climate in which trade unions operate in Malaysia, the Lower House of Parliament (Dewan Rakyat) passed amendments to two laws on labour in August 2007: the Industrial Relations Act of 1967 and the Trade Unions Act of 1958. These amendments render the formation of unions even more difficult. In December 2007, the Upper House (Dewan Negara) adopted these amendments, which were approved by the King in January 2008.

Obstacles to freedom of movement for human rights defenders of indigenous people in Sarawak

Over the past fifteen years, 12 human rights defenders experienced obstacles to their freedom of movement when they wanted to enter the territory of Sarawak (Borneo).5 While most of these people were not officially informed of the reasons why their access was restricted, they discovered they had been placed on a "blacklist" because of their involvement in "activities against logging". Most had taken part in the campaign against the proposed hydroelectric dam in Bakun, which caused the forced displacement of nearly 10,000 indigenous persons as well as deterioration of the environment. For instance, on August 23, 2007, Mr. Kua Kia Soong, a member of the administrative board of SUARAM, was refused entry in the State of Sarawak, and escorted back to Kuala Lumpur. One of the immigration officials of Sarawak had informed him that he was on "the blacklist because of his activities against the logging industry". Mr. Kua Kia Soong is a staunch opponent of the Bakun dam project and had served on a fact-finding mission in 1999 on the conditions of indigenous people displaced in 1998-1999.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 The Sedition Act criminalises "seditious" speech, with up to three years in prison and/or a fine of 5,000 Ringgit (approximately 1,044 Euros).

2 Section 121b of the Criminal Code criminalises "war against the King" with the death penalty or life imprisonment.

3 See Press Release of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), August 17, 2007.

4 See Observatory Annual Report 2006.

5 See SUARAM, Memorandum to SUHAKAM – 44 Years of Nationhood: Malaysians still denied the right to travel abroad and within our own country!, September 14, 2007.


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