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Malaysia: P.M’s Visit Puts Spotlight on Detainee Abuse

(New York) - Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi should declare an end to his country’s practice of detaining suspects without trial as he conducts his first visit to the United States and Europe as head of the Malaysian government, Human Rights Watch urged. Abdullah will meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington today, French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday.

Over the past three years, the Malaysian government has held nearly 100 individuals without charge or trial under Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act on allegations of belonging to militant groups. In a report released May 25, In the Name of Security, Human Rights Watch documented how detainees endured various forms of mistreatment, including being forced to stand semi-naked for long periods and being subjected to sexually humiliating interrogations. One detainee was told to masturbate in front of prison officials, while another was beaten in the genitals.

“After September 11, the U.S. and other Western governments turned a blind eye to Malaysia’s abuses,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “But now governments around the world are learning that their failure to protect human rights can actually undercut efforts to combat terrorism.”

The U.S. government, formerly a vocal critic of Malaysia's use of the internal security act, has been quiet on the counterterrorism detentions. Instead, the United States has repeatedly praised Malaysia for its support in the U.S.-led "war on terror."

The U.S. government's silence on Malaysia’s internal security detentions also demonstrates a reluctance to criticize practices similar to those used by the United States. Before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, one senior U.S. State Department official told Human Rights Watch that “with what we’re doing in Guantanamo, we’re on thin ice to push.” Another U.S. official told Human Rights Watch that the U.S. government could only act on cases of abuse that were “worse than Guantanamo.”

“Prime Minister Abdullah’s visit gives him the chance to demonstrate that his government is serious about addressing the abuses uncovered in Malaysia’s detention centers,” said Zarifi. “Abdullah’s predecessor misused the internal security act to weaken Malaysia’s justice system for years, but the prime minister now has the opportunity to fix some of the problems by getting rid of this terrible law.”

The Malaysian government has recently taken some steps to respond to criticism of its treatment of terror suspects. On May 29, the Malaysian government opened Kamunting prison to a tour by journalists, the first such visit since the long-term detention facility opened in 1973. According to media reports, detainees spoke about abuses they had endured after their arrest.

The government also announced that the Malaysian National Human Rights Commission, Suhakam, would investigate the short-term detention centers, called Police Remand Centers, where most of the serious abuses alleged by detainees took place.

Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Abdullah’s hosts in Washington, Paris and London to press Malaysia to reform the abusive conditions of detainees.

“As the Abu Ghraib prison scandal continues to grow, American, European and Asian leaders have to show that they will no longer ignore human rights norms,” Zarifi said. “Abdullah needs to show that his government is taking steps to end abuses against detainees, as do Bush and Blair.”

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