(New York)-- Human Rights Watch today expressed concern over the arrests since Sunday of at least eleven human rights activists and opposition figures in Kuala Lumpur.
The arrests followed a major demonstration on Sunday in support of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The international monitoring organization urged that all those detained solely for the exercise of the right to peaceable assembly be released. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir will arrive in the United States next week.
"The government appears to be closing off public space to critical voices," said Sidney Jones, Executive Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "We are concerned that these arrests could signal a further deterioration of the human rights climate in Malaysia."
The arrests took place following a protest in which a crowd of nearly 10,000 people gathered at the National Mosque to demand an independent investigation into allegations that Anwar was poisoned with arsenic while in prison. It was the largest public protest in Malaysia this year and one of the largest demonstrations since Anwar was arrested in September 1998. When the crowd sought to march from the mosque to the National Palace to deliver its petition calling for the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, police fired tear gas and a chemical-laced water cannon; some demonstrators were beaten with batons. Some protestors retaliated by throwing stones and flower pots, and several policemen were reportedly injured.
Prominent human rights activists and opposition figures are among those being detained. Detainees include Sivarasa Rasiah,a leading human rights lawyers in Malaysia and a founder of the human rights organization Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), and Tian Chua, vice-president of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional) led by Anwar's wife. Also arrested were Hishamuddin Rais, Azmin Ali, Dr. Mohammad Hatta bin Ramli, Mohammad Ezam Mohammad Nor, Helmi bin Muhammad, Saidin bin Nayan, Dr. Badrul Amin Baharon, and Syed Bunyamin. Some of the detainees already have been charged and others are being held without charge pending further investigation pursuant to a provision of the Malaysian Criminal Procedure Code which allows for such detention for up to 15 days.
During the past year, the Malaysian government has repeatedly broken up peaceful opposition demonstrations and public meetings. Rallies in support of the reform movement spearheaded by Anwar and demonstrations protesting his arrest and detention have been effectively banned. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested; Tian Chua has now been arrested four times in the past year.
In silencing the protests, the government has variously argued that the organizers lacked a permit, that they were endangering security, or that they were not lawfully registered. In past cases, the government has also cited an October 5, 1998 court ruling banning any discussion suggesting Anwar's guilt or innocence prior to the conclusion of court proceedings. Those who have already been charged among the current group of detainees have been charged under section 27 of the Police Act (illegal assembly) and section 147 of the Penal Code (causing a riot) -- broadly worded provisions that critics assert can be and are used to obtain convictions even when there is no evidence that the defendant was involved in violent acts or otherwise posed a direct threat to public order. The fact that the government has used so many different reasons suggests that it is more concerned about the content of the message delivered in these public gatherings than the procedures followed by the organizers.
The crackdown on public assemblies has not been limited to pro-Anwar rallies, but also has included other demonstrations critical of government policies, including the arrest in July of Irene Fernandez and other activists who were peaceably protesting the government's demolition of Kampung Sungai Nipah, an urban squatter settlement.