(New York) -- Malaysia's incoming prime minister Abdullah Badawi, due to take office on Friday, should signal his commitment to human rights by repealing the Internal Security Act, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the new Malaysian leader. The repeal of this repressive law should be the first step in opening Malaysia's tightly controlled political climate.
The outgoing prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, handpicked Badawi as his successor. Badawi, a longtime civil servant who served as Mahathir's deputy for four years, inherits a government with a mixed record on human rights. After assuming power in 1981, the autocratic Mahathir used various repressive laws to silence or even imprison his critics. While during the past two decades many Malaysians enjoyed rising standards of living, they could not exercise basic political rights.
"Mahathir's human rights legacy is not one to be proud of. Badawi needs to do things differently on human rights," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Badawi has the opportunity to make Malaysia a leader in the region by promoting political and cultural pluralism."
In its letter, Human Rights Watch urged the incoming prime minister to:
Repeal the Internal Security Act. Passed in 1960, the Act allows the government to detain individuals indefinitely and without adequate procedural safeguards, and violates international human rights standards relating to due process and judicial review.
Ensure the independence of the judiciary. During Mahathir's term in office, the government limited the judiciary's ability to carry out its core function of checking executive abuse of power, both by rewriting laws to prohibit judicial review and by the continuing intimidation of judges who rule against the government.
End media censorship. Mahathir's government used both formal and informal means to censor the Malaysian media, and resorted on occasion to open intimidation of journalists. In January police raided the offices of Malaysiakini.com, one of Malaysia's leading independent news sources.
Promote women's rights. Despite some progress, Malaysia has not provided women adequate protection under criminal and domestic law, particularly in regard to domestic and sexual violence.
In addition, Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to ensure the protection of the rights of association and assembly, to safeguard the rights of refugees and migrants in the country, to put an end to the government's prosecution of prominent rights advocate Irene Fernandez, and to free political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim, who preceded Badawi as deputy prime minister.
"Mahathir ran a paternalistic government that tried to decide what was right for the Malaysian people," Adams said. "Now the people of Malaysia should be free to make these choices as they see fit."