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Malaysia: UN Review Should Challenge Rights Record

End Preventative Detention, Investigate Abuses

(Geneva) - United Nations member states should raise concerns about arbitrary and preventive detention and abuses against migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers at the upcoming review of Malaysia's human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today.  Malaysia will undergo its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on February 11, 2009, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Under the process, the rights record of each member state will be reviewed once every four years.

"A long, hard look at Malaysia's performance on fundamental human rights, including its detention practices, is in order," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Countries should call Malaysia to account for failing to address abuses against migrants and refugees, and for its continuing use of preventative detention."

Under Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), anyone deemed to be a threat to national security can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, violating international due process standards. In its submission for the human rights review, Malaysia characterizes the ISA as "essential to peace, stability, and security" and describes the procedures under which a detained person can challenge the detention.

But Malaysia's reliance on the ISA violates a number of international human rights standards, including the right to be free from arbitrary detention, the rights to due process and to a fair trial, and the rights to freedom of speech and expression. While an advisory board reviews all ISA detentions, its recommendations are not binding. The detainees have no avenues of redress as the courts are not permitted to review a case on its merits. Permitted appeals on procedural grounds routinely fail.

On September 12, 2008, the Malaysian government arrested two journalists and an opposition politician under the ISA. All have since been released. But one of the journalists, Raja Petra Lamarudin, founder and editor of Malaysia Today, Malaysia's most popular website, is now on trial for sedition. In December 2007, five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) were charged under ISA after the organization staged a demonstration to draw attention to education and economic policies that discriminate against Malaysia's Indian population. These five remain in detention.

"Malaysia uses the pretext of national security to invoke the ISA and lock up critics and political opponents indefinitely," Pearson said. "UN member states should challenge Malaysia to repeal the ISA, and either to charge or to free all those currently detained under its provisions."

In its report to the Human Rights Council, Malaysia fails to address the problems faced by migrant workers, but suggests that a Malaysia-Indonesia Memorandum of Understanding provides necessary protection. Human Rights Watch has long documented abuses suffered by domestic workers - physical abuse, unpaid wages, excessively long working hours, and lack of rest days. The memorandum with Indonesia still fails to establish minimum labor protections or to guarantee the rights of domestic workers to hold their own passports, which sometimes are confiscated by employers to maintain control over an employee.

Human Rights Watch said that UN member states should especially raise concerns about Malaysia's failure to address abuses by the People's Voluntary Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA), the government-backed force that apprehends irregular migrants and provides security for Malaysia's immigration detention centers. In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented a pattern of abuse by members of RELA, including physical assault, intimidation, threats, humiliating treatment, forced entry into living quarters, extortion, and theft perpetrated against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees (

One detained migrant told Human Rights Watch how RELA members treated them "like animals" and would punch and kick detainees for no apparent reason. Another migrant described a beating by RELA officers that left him so sore that he could not walk for days. The government consistently denies that abuses by RELA are widespread, and instead of disbanding RELA, wants to upgrade it into a fully-fledged enforcement agency.

Regarding human trafficking, Malaysia's submission to the Human Rights Council points to the state's new anti-trafficking law, shelters for trafficking victims, and awareness campaigns to prevent trafficking. But Malaysia has failed to investigate allegations of collusion between Malaysian immigration officers and trafficking gangs on the Malay-Thai border, dismissing such reports as "wild accusations." In 2008, Burmese migrants told Human Rights Watch of being sold to criminal gangs, who charged those with money to smuggle them back into Malaysia and trafficked those who could not pay.

"RELA officers have beaten, tortured, and extorted money from migrants, but instead of punishing them, the government wants to reward their bad behavior by giving them more powers," said Pearson. "In reviewing Malaysia's record, states should be asking why Malaysia won't conduct impartial investigations into the involvement of RELA and immigration officers in abuses against migrants."

Malaysia has not signed major international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its optional protocol, and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The Malaysian government has repeatedly stated that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will only be given effect where it is compatible with Malaysia's constitution.

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