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Human rights in Malaysia continued to deteriorate in 1999. Government authorities responded to the growing assertiveness of some citizens groups and to a new opposition coalition with a series of repressive measures. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's conviction for corruption and his ongoing sodomy trial dwarfed all other news. The Anwar trials, the arrest of several Anwar supporters and associates, and repeated government crackdowns on pro-Anwar rallies demonstrated the fragility of political rights in Malaysia. Arbitrary limitations on basic rights were also evident in restrictions on campus life, arrests of activists, and use of criminal contempt laws against lawyers and journalists who questioned the independence of the judiciary. Although the Malaysian economy began to rebound, providing hope for economically vulnerable populations, the government continued to implement restrictive laws on refugees and migrant workers. Detainees at immigration centers protested harsh conditions and extended periods of confinement. The passage of legislation to establish a Malaysian Human Rights Commission held out the promise of more government attention to human rights, but the legislation was severely flawed and drew strong criticism from local NGOs for its failure to establish a truly independent commission and to implement international standards.

Human Rights Developments

The trial of Anwar Ibrahim on corruption charges continued into 1999. In April, Anwar was convicted on four counts of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison.

In June the joint trial of Anwar and Sukma Dermawan, Anwar's adopted brother, began on charges that they had sodomized Azizan Abu Bakar, Anwar's wife's former driver. Sukma was also charged with aiding and abetting Anwar. Although the judge lifted a gag order that he had previously issued preventing anyone involved in the trial from making public statements about the case, he warned journalists about violating contempt laws after the trial began. On September 10, Anwar was hospitalized following allegations that he had been poisoned with arsenic while in prison and the trial was temporarily suspended. Anwar was released from the hospital on October 4, and the sodomy trial resumed the following day. According to the hospital, tests on Anwar's urine, hair, and nails did not reveal impermissable levels of arsenic.

The use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest Anwar and some of the witnesses, the beating of Anwar in custody, and the repeated interference by the prosecution with the defense all combined to put the fairness of the proceedings in doubt. In January the Inspector-General of Police Abdul Rahim Noor resigned following the Malaysian attorney general's acknowledgment that the police had beaten Anwar. The government then set up an independent commission to further investigate the matter. In April, Abdul Rahim Noor was charged with "attempting to cause grievous hurt." He pled not guilty to the charge.

The primary witnesses against Anwar have recanted their confessions, alleging that they were coerced physically and psychologically by the police. In February, Mior Abdul Razak, who had been arrested in September 1998 and held for 107 days for alleged sexual offenses with Anwar, lodged a statutory declaration stating that the police had pressured him to confess and that he was never sodomized by Anwar. In April, perjury charges were brought against Mior Abdul Razak for his statement and were pending at the time of this writing. During Anwar's corruption trial in March, Azizan testified that "threats of the police...had been very brutal and forced me to make confessions implicating Anwar Ibrahim, without any basis." Perjury charges were then brought against Azizan for giving false evidence; these charges were dismissed in July.

Sukma and Dr. Munawar Anees, a Pakistani scholar and colleague of Anwar's, both pled guilty in September 1998 to being sodomized by Anwar; in 1999, both unsuccessfully appealed their convictions on the grounds that their confessions had been coerced. Sukma filed an affidavit to this effect and was consequently charged in April with perjury and two additional sexual offenses. Despite Sukma's testimony at the sodomy trial of physical and psychological abuse by the police, the court found his confession voluntary and allowed it to be introduced as evidence.

Subsequent to Anwar's arrest in September 1998, the Malaysian government repeatedly broke up peaceful opposition demonstrations and public meetings. Rallies in support of the "reformasi" (reform) movement and demonstrations protesting Anwar's detention and conviction were followed by mass arrests. Demonstrators were brought to trial under charges of violating the Police Act (illegal assembly), the Penal Code (rioting), or both. After lengthy legal proceedings, many protestors saw the charges against them dismissed; others were sentenced to imprisonment and a fine. Of more than 300 people arrested in October 1998, twenty-seven were found guilty after trials in February and March; the others were all acquitted. Other trials were still ongoing at the time of this writing.

On September 19 the largest protest since Anwar's arrest erupted over allegations that Anwar had been poisoned in prison. Approximately ten thousand people gathered at the National Mosque to demand that an independent investigatory commission be appointed. Police arrested activists and opposition figures, including Sivarasa Rasiah, one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in Malaysia and a founder of the NGO Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Voice of the Malaysian People) (SUARAM), and Tian Chua, vice-president of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional). This was the fourth time that Tian Chua had been arrested since September 1998 in connection with public demonstrations; Chua said that he was beaten by police while in custody in September 1998, April 1999, and September 1999. Others arrested following the September 19 demonstration included activist Hishamuddin Rai; Azmin Ali, Anwar's former private secretary; and Mohamad Ezam Nor, Anwar's former political secretary. Although some protestors reportedly had thrown stones and flower pots when the police moved in to drive back the crowd, there were no reports linking those arrested to the violence. Sivarasa, Chua, and at least twenty-seven others were subsequently charged with unlawful assembly or disobeying an order to disperse and were released on bail. If convicted, they face a fine and up to a year in prison.

Students faced additional constraints from the Malaysian Universities and University College Act (UUCA) which forbids students from participating in any political organization or trade union, on campus or off. The law also restricts the participation of university staff in political activity. Following Anwar's arrest, a growing number of students were detained in reformasi demonstrations, and Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak threatened sanctions under the act, including fines, suspension, and expulsion. Educational institutions began issuing "show cause" letters, and students and teachers who were arrested faced disciplinary action. In April following demonstrations protesting Anwar's conviction, thirty-six students, teachers, and lecturers were arrested and subsequently faced disciplinary action. The Education Minister announced in May that two students, one from St. John's Institute and one from the Institut Teknologi Mara, had been expelled for participating in the rallies.

In June the Universiti Malaya, under the orders of "high officials," canceled a political debate organized by the Islamic Students Society. The debate was to be entitled, "Is Student Politicking Relevant?" and would have included speakers from opposition parties. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Youth Students and Training Council Chief Zein Isma praised the cancellation, saying that the debate was forbidden under the UUCA and was designed to instigate hatred against UMNO, the ruling party.

Illegal assembly laws were also used in other contexts to punish well-known activists exercising their right to freedom of assembly. In July Irene Fernandez, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based advocacy organization Tenaganita (Women's Force); Mohamad Nasir, president of the Malaysian Socialist Party (Parti Sosialis Malaysia) and four others were charged with unlawful assembly for their participation in a peaceful gathering on June 28 at Kampung Sungai Nipah. The activists and community members were protesting the demolition of the urban settlement as well as the authorities' failure to provide alternative housing to eighty families whose homes were scheduled for demolition. Many of the families had lived there for decades, and the protesters were awaiting a stay order on the demolition from the Court of Appeal. Police reportedly sprayed mace and tear gas at some one hundred men, women, and children who had formed a human barricade around the settlement, and then used water cannon and physical force to disperse the crowd. More than fifty people were reportedly arrested, with the majority released soon after. Although over four hundred people participated in the demonstration, five of the six persons charged were activists, suggesting that the law was being selectively applied.

The Malaysian government continued to use arbitrary regulatory decrees, broadly worded legislation, and lengthy, expensive court proceedings to punish its critics and control free speech. In preparation for the upcoming general elections, the Information Ministry announced in July that Malaysian opposition parties would not be allowed to appear on state-run television stations. At the same time, the Entrepreneur Development Minister, who controls taxi licenses, told Parliament that taxi drivers who criticize the government, play tape-recordings of anti-government speeches, or display pictures of opposition leaders in their vehicles could have their licenses revoked. In September Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Shariff Omar stated that mosque officials who allowed opposition parties to hold anti-government "ceramah" (political forums) in their mosques would be removed. Certain mosque officials who criticized the government in their sermons reportedly were removed.

The trial of Irene Fernandez entered its fourth year, with Fernandez facing the possibility of three years of imprisonment on charges of malicious publishing. In July 1995, Fernandez had published a short memorandum on abuses in immigration detention centers based on over 300 interviews with former detainees. The government maintains that the report was inaccurate.

On August 26, former secretary general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) Lim Guan Eng was released after serving one year of his eighteen-month sentence for sedition and malicious publishing of false news. In 1995 he had accused the attorney general of mishandling a case of alleged statutory rape of a schoolgirl by the chief minister of Malacca. Because of his conviction, Guan Eng was disqualified from being a member of parliament or holding elective office, was prohibited from holding any position in a political party for five years, and was barred from pursuing his profession as an accountant.

In April the International Court of Justice held that the Malaysian courts must provide Dato' Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, with immunity in defamation suits brought by two corporations. The suits were based on a 1995 article in the London-based International Commercial Litigation in which Cumaraswamy was quoted as saying he would be looking into allegations of corporate interference in the Malaysian judiciary. According to the world court, Cumaraswamy made the allegations in his capacity as special rapporteur and, therefore, was clearly entitled to immunity under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. The court found that the Malaysian government had violated its obligations under the convention when it failed to inform the Malaysian courts of the U.N. Secretary-General's finding that Cumaraswamy was immune, and directed the government to communicate the court's opinion to the Malaysian courts. Although Prime Minister Mahathir stated in March that he had accepted the court's decision, in October the Malaysian High Court denied Cumaraswamy's motion to dismiss and assessed him costs, stating that the world court's decision was not a final and binding authority. According to the Malaysian court, Cumaraswamy is not absolutely immune, and whether he is entitled to any immunity should be decided at trial.

The cases brought against Cumaraswamy were among a spate of libel and criminal contempt actions brought against lawyers who questioned the independence and integrity of the Malaysian judiciary. Other targets have included Zainur Zakaria, an attorney for Anwar who had filed an affidavit accusing the prosecution of attempting to tamper with evidence, and Tommy Thomas, an attorney who had publicly criticized the judiciary and who was the target of several libel suits for comments attributed to him in the same 1995 article that led to the suits against Cumaraswamy. In separate proceedings in November and December 1998, respectively, Zakaria and Thomas were convicted of contempt of court under a loosely worded law that gives a presiding judge broad discretion to sanction attorneys and other parties for statements they make in connection with pending cases. At the time of this writing, although their cases were on appeal, both were still facing jail time.

The imprisonment of Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert for contempt in September attracted international attention. In 1997 Hiebert had published an article detailing a civil suit brought by the wife of an Appeal Court judge and noted its unusually rapid progress through the judicial system. After a two-year appeal of his contempt conviction during which his passport was impounded and he was unable to leave the country, his sentence was reduced from three months to six weeks. He decided to serve the sentence and was released after four weeks for good behavior. Local opposition leaders and NGOs, including SUARAM, criticized the verdict as a further attack on freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Extended detention of undocumented immigrants continued to spark protests by detainees. On July 27, detainees at the Lenggeng detention center demonstrated against a three-day water cut and numerous health issues, and almost two hundred detainees escaped. On September 19, more than four hundred Indonesian detainees at the Langkap detention center protested their lengthy detention.

According to Menteri Besar Tan Sri Mohamad Isa Abdul Samad, 1,998 undocumented immigrants were detained and deported from January to August 20. On September 3 Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar stated, "We do not recognize the status of refugees. . . . [W]e only allow foreigners to stay on a temporary basis after which they have to go back." Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it is bound both by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides refugees the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution and by customary international law which prohibits governments from returning refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened.

In July Parliament passed a bill to establish a Malaysian Human Rights Commission. Under the bill, the commission would advise the government on human rights issues and have limited power to investigate allegations of infringements on human rights with some immunity from defamation actions. Local NGOs objected to the commission's jurisdiction being restricted to rights embodied in the Malaysian constitution, which has been deemed compatible with Malaysian laws including the ISA, the Official Secrets Act, and other broadly worded laws which violate internationally established human rights. In addition, NGOs maintained that under the bill the commission would lack adequate resources and sufficient independence from the government.

Defending Human Rights

Malaysia's human rights groups continued monitoring and advocacy on a variety of issues. SUARAM responded quickly to arrests of reformasi protestors, including those following the September 19 demonstration. Tenaganita continued to monitor immigrants in detention. The Malaysian Bar Council expressed concern about judicial independence, with its president raising the issue before the Commonwealth Law Conference in September. Local NGOs closely monitored legislation to establish a National Human Rights Commission, and thirty-four organizations and two political parties submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs raising the concerns about the bill noted above. In July Hakam, Era Consumer, and SUARAM held a forum on the commission and produced a statement critiquing the legislation and proposing amendments. The bill was later passed as drafted.

As documented by the Anwar proceedings, the four-year old case against Irene Fernandez, and the arrests of Sivarasa Rasiah and Tian Chua, Malaysian activists continued to pay a high price for their commitment to human rights.

The Role of the International Community

North America

The U.S. State Department on April 14 expressed great concern about Anwar's conviction and noted serious questions about the basic fairness of the judicial proceedings. The U.S. urged that Anwar be released on bail pending appeal. Both U.S. President Bill Clinton and Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy condemned Murray Hiebert's imprisonment.


Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met with Prime Minister Mahathir during his seven-day visit to Japan which began on May 29. Obuchi urged due process in Anwar's trial, but did not protest the April verdict or sentence. The Japanese Foreign Ministry was concerned, however, about Anwar's mistreatment in custody and about long-term stability in Malaysia if unrest continued. Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer also expressed concern about Anwar's conviction and the hope that issues concerning the trial's conduct and possible judicial bias in favor of the prosecution would be addressed on appeal.

European Union

In an urgent resolution in June, the European Parliament called on the Malaysian government to stop politically motivated crackdowns on supporters of the reform movement, opposition parties, and NGO activists; to stop the excessive use of force by police and to bring to justice those responsible for abuse; to revise the laws criminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults; and to abolish or amend the ISA.

World Bank

In September World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who had issued a public statement protesting Anwar's arrest in September 1998, reiterated his concern about Anwar's detention. In May 1999, the Malaysian government officially informed the Bank that it would confine its borrowing to the $704 million that had already been approved and that it was not interested in participating in any other loan programs or technical studies with the Bank.

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