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(New York) -- The Malaysian government’s unprecedented opening of its detention facilities to select observers is a welcome gesture, but it will not end abuses under Malaysia’s security law, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 29, the Malaysian government opened the Kamunting Detention Center to a tour by journalists, the first such visit since the long-term detention facility opened in 1973 as the main incarceration center for Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees. According to media reports, detainees spoke about abuses they had endured after their arrest.

“Even this brief glimpse into Malaysia’s detention centers has shown that serious abuses have taken place,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “If the Malaysian government truly has nothing to hide, they should let independent groups go in and report on their findings.”

The government also announced that the Malaysian National Human Rights Commission, Suhakam, would conduct an investigation into allegations of abuses at short-term detention centers, called Police Remand Centers, where detainees are initially held for several weeks before being sent on to Kamunting.

Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to permit access to Kamunting and other detention facilities to nongovernmental, human rights monitoring organizations that publicly report on their findings. Such groups should be permitted to visit all detention centers unannounced and speak to detainees in private.

The government should publicly announce a target date for introduction of legislation to abolish or drastically amend the ISA so that it meets international human rights standards. Human Rights Watch noted that basic due process protections, including access to an attorney immediately after arrest and the right to a fair trial, serve as a key safeguard against physical and psychological abuse.

“The Malaysian government has made promises about reforming the ISA in the past, only to kill the reform proposals once the pressure was off,” said Zarifi. “This time, the government needs to show that it is serious about protecting the rights of detainees.”

During the journalists’ tour of Kamunting on May 29, current ISA detainees reportedly told the deputy minister of internal security, Datuk Noh Omar, that they had been abused during the first few weeks of their detention in the Police Remand Centers by Special Branch interrogators. Some detainees stated that they were so severely abused that they developed mental problems and had to be admitted for treatment at a local hospital.

“Most of the abuses against detainees happen in the first few weeks of detention,” said Zarifi. “The Malaysian government knows this. An investigation of Police Remand Centers by the national human rights commission is a good first step, but the root of the problem is still the ISA itself.”

On May 25, Human Rights Watch published the report, “In the Name of Security: Human Rights Abuses Under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act,” which documented physical and psychological abuse against detainees held under the ISA based on allegations of belonging to Islamist militant groups. It also documented the near-complete denial of due process rights to detainees in the first several weeks of detention. Detainees were initially held incommunicado, and were not allowed to see an attorney or visit with family members.

Because the ISA permits Malaysian authorities to deny detainees virtually all due process rights, it has been the focus of criticism from domestic and international human rights groups for decades. Under the ISA, detainees can be held without charge or trial for as long as the government sees fit. In particular, Article 73 of the Act allows for an initial detention period of up to two months, usually in secret police detention centers.

Human Rights Watch called on the government either to release the 11 detainees whose two-year detention periods are set to end on June 11 or charge them with a criminal offense. The 11 men were arrested in April 2002 on allegations of involvement with Islamist militant groups. Despite their more than two years in detention, the government has yet to charge them with a crime or to substantiate the allegations against them in open court.

“This is a great opportunity for the government to show that it is on the road to reform,” said Zarifi. “Releasing these men or giving them their day in court will signal that the government has finally gotten the message on the ISA.”

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