(New York) - The Malaysian government should immediately take steps to dissolve the People’s Volunteer Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA), responsible for numerous cases of illegal detentions, unlawful use of force, and extortion, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Malaysian government has authorized almost half a million RELA volunteers to help maintain public order, primarily through the apprehension of undocumented migrant workers, most of whom come to Malaysia to augment Malaysia’s insufficient labor force. In carrying out their duties, RELA volunteers often employ unnecessary force and illegal policing practices. Fully uniformed, armed, and unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, they break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money, and confiscate cell phones, clothing, jewelry, and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for “illegal immigrants.”
“The government has set up what’s little more than a vigilante force to target foreigners,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given RELA’s repeated abuses, it should be disbanded right away.”
RELA members have failed to distinguish or deliberately ignored the distinctions between undocumented migrants, and refugees and asylum seekers. At other times, volunteers have refused to recognize a worker’s legitimate immigration status. In an effort to legitimatize their own behavior, the volunteers have been known to deliberately destroy identification cards proving a worker’s right to be in Malaysia.
There have been many examples of unlawful behavior by RELA. Cases from 2007 include:
- On April 5, RELA members arrested some 20 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers at a market in downtown Kuala Lumpur. At least five had been recognized as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
- In late March, eight members of a RELA team removed belongings amounting to RM 1,800 (approximately US$525) from one dwelling. After police ascertained that at least two of those implicated had stolen before, the full team was detained on robbery charges.
- On March 8, a RELA officer detained an Indian immigrant with identification certifying his legal status. It took four days for the worker’s employer to obtain his release from a detention camp for illegal immigrants.
- On March 6 and 7, RELA volunteers, who had come to Kampung Berembang, a village near Kuala Lumpur, supposedly to hand out flyers related to court orders, instead helped a developer evict 50 families and tear down their houses. Several villagers were arrested. The demolition went ahead despite an injunction to desist until a scheduled hearing was held. By helping the developers, RELA volunteers engaged in activities – some were spotted operating bulldozers – well beyond their mandate. In addition, they used excessive force while doing so.
- On March 2, at 2:30 a.m., 10 RELA volunteers raided a factory in Jenjarom, Selangor state, injuring two Nepalese workers and detaining eight others.
- On January 28, a RELA raid in Kampung Sungai Merab, Denkil, resulted in the arbitrary arrest of 14 persons recognized by UNHCR as refugees.
“The Malaysian government fans xenophobia through its use of RELA,” said Adams. “By targeting all foreign migrants, Malaysia undermines its espoused pan-Asian ethic.”
According to the 2005 amendment to Malaysia’s Essential Regulations, part of Malaysia’s security legislation, RELA is allowed to arrest an individual or enter and search any premises, public or private, without a search or arrest warrant. The amendment also gives RELA volunteers the right to bear and use firearms, and to demand documents. All that is necessary is authorization to conduct a raid from certain RELA officials, including the director general and deputy director general of RELA and other RELA officers appointed by the home affairs minister.
The 2005 amendment also gives effective legal immunity to RELA volunteers. Regulation 16 of the act states: “The Public Protection Authorities Act 1948 shall apply to any action, suit, prosecution or proceedings against … RELA … or any member … in respect of any act, neglect or default done or committed by him in good faith or any omission omitted by him in good faith, in such capacity.”
In response to publicized abuses in April 2007, RELA headquarters issued a circular announcing that a raiding team leader would be responsible for conducting body searches on force members before and after raids to ensure they were abiding by the law. To make sure that volunteers do not steal or plant evidence, the team leader is instructed to check that volunteers are not carrying cell phones or weapons and only a limited amount of money. RELA officials have also responded to complaints by announcing new training procedures.
“RELA’s behavior has embarrassed the government into announcing some minor reforms,” said Adams. “But tinkering with raiding procedures or upgrading training will not get to the fundamental issue, which is that RELA should be disbanded. Malaysia has plenty of professional law enforcement bodies.”
According to Malaysia’s Home Ministry, the role of RELA, which dates back to 1972, is “to help maintain security in the country and the well-being of the people.” It is used as the eyes and ears of the government, to collect information for government agencies such as the police, customs, and immigration on threats to security, to do security patrolling to prevent crime, and, when necessary, to carry out citizens’ arrests. The 2005 amendment ceded more power to RELA by permitting it, “where it has reasonable belief that any person is a terrorist, undesirable person, illegal immigrant or an occupier, to stop that person in order to make all such inquiries or to require the production of all such documents or other things as the competent authority may consider necessary.”