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Human Rights Watch On Malaysia: It's Not Just The Trial

(New York) - As the trial of Anwar Ibrahim opens in Kuala Lumpur, Human Rights Watch said the Malaysian government was responsible for a wide range of human rights violations in its efforts to remove Mr. Anwar from political power.

"We're obviously deeply concerned about aspects of Mr. Anwar's arrest, detention, and trial," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "But we're equally concerned about the government's reliance on the Internal Security Act and what appear to be growing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly that affect a much larger number of people."

Human Rights Watch has sent two observers to the trial, Mr. Wesley Gryk, a London-based lawyer, and Ms. Jeannine Guthrie, a staff member of the organization's Asia division.

Human Rights Watch will be looking at the impartiality of the government's inquiry into the beatings Mr. Anwar endured on the night of his arrest, and whether anyone is prosecuted as a result. It will examine the question of whether Mr. Anwar and his lawyers had adequate time to prepare a defense, given the initial difficulties the lawyers had getting access to their client after Mr. Anwar was detained under the Internal Security Act. It will inquire about any undue pressure on witnesses, especially in light of allegations by the two men convicted of sodomy that they were forced to plead guilty under duress. And it will watch for any indications of a less than fully independent judiciary, not only in this trial on four counts of corruption, but in forthcoming trials, both of Mr. Anwar, on the remaining six charges against him, and of his associates. The trial of one of the latter, businessman K.S. Nallakaruppan, opens on November 9; he is charged with illegal possession of ammunition under a section of the ISA which carries a mandatory death sentence.

Human Rights Watch also noted that the following serious human rights violations had taken place in recent months in connection with Mr Anwar's case.

Use of the Internal Security Act (ISA)
The ISA, a holdover from the British colonial administration, gives the police unacceptably broad powers of search and detention and restrictions on freedom of movement, speech, association, and assembly. It has been used to detain Anwar supporters and associates, and lawyers representing those detainees have themselves been called in for questioning, in violation of the privileged lawyer-client relationship. Anwar Ibrahim is no longer in ISA detention, but the repeated use of the law in recent months is cause for concern. Human Rights Watch wholeheartedly endorses a resolution passed unanimously on October 10 by the Malaysian Bar Council, calling for the repeal of the ISA.

Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly
Since September, the Malaysian government has banned peaceful political rallies linked to Mr. Anwar, both those in support of reform and those to protest his arrest and detention. To justify the ban, the government has variously argued that the organizers lacked a permit, that they were endangering security, or that they were not lawfully registered. The government has also cited a court ruling on October 5 banning any discussion suggesting Anwar's guilt or innocence prior to the conclusion of the trial. The fact that the government has used so many different reasons suggests that it is more concerned about the message delivered in these public gatherings than the procedures followed by the organizers. Hundreds of people who took part in such "illegal assemblies" have been charged under the Police Act and face up to one year in prison or a heavy fine.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
Besides banning reform rallies under the Police Act, police have forbidden Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar's wife, from addressing public meetings. They have also threatened to arrest her for statements she made in an interview in September expressing the fear that Anwar might be injected with HIV while in custody to "prove" charges of homosexuality. International journalists who interviewed her were visited in Singapore by Malaysian police as part of an investigation of Wan Azizah on possible sedition charges. Malaysian authorities have also announced surveillance of all Internet communications regarding the arrest of Anwar. Newspapers in which the ruling party, UMNO, is a major shareholder, such as Utusan Malaysia, have pressured editors and journalists to follow the party line on Anwar or face dismissal.

Excessive Use of Force by Police
Anwar and other detainees allege that they were beaten by police, denied sleep, or subjected to threats or other psychological abuse. Mr. Anwar's black eye and bruised arm generated international outrage and suggest that arresting officers violated a key principle of the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers, namely that "Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." Moreover, the first principle of the U.N.Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any form of Detention or Imprisonment states that "All persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person."

Restrictions on Freedom of Association
The Malaysian University Act forbids students from participating in opposition politics, a law that Human Rights Watch believes is inherently restrictive of freedom of association. In September, Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that the ministry was monitoring students involved in Anwar's "reformasi" or reform movement. Student supporters from the Mara Institute of Technology were threatened with expulsion and blacklisting from government educational institutions for being involved in Anwar's campaigns. Six students from Universiti Utara Malaysia were arrested and subsequently suspended for involvement in political activity related to a September parliamentary by-election.

Violations of the Right to Privacy
Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home, and correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation;" and that "everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." The public vilification, arrest and prosecution of Anwar and his associates in connection with allegations of homosexual activity are a violation of that right. Whether or not the allegations are true, the section of the Penal Code banning "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" violates the fundamental human right to privacy, to the extent that the ban covers consensual, private sexual acts between adults.

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