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(New York) - The Malaysian government should drop politically motivated charges against 52 members of an ethnic Indian organization before their trials start on April 4, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The 52 are charged with "belonging to an unlawful society."

The government should also revoke the 2008 ban against the group, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), and permit it to register under Malaysia's Societies Act, Human Rights Watch said. The government brought the criminal charges after preventing Hindraf and the closely affiliated Human Rights Party from holding the "Solidarity March Against Racism" on February 27, 2011, in central Kuala Lumpur.

"The authorities time and time again refuse to allow Malaysians to come together to peacefully express views that do not echo official rhetoric," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It's bad enough to ban rallies, but threatening people with three years in prison for such activities is simply outrageous."

The Hindraf members charged face sentences of up to three years in prison or fines of up to RM5,000 (US$1,650), or both. P. Ramesh, Hindraf's national secretary, faces the additional charge of possessing some 100 pamphlets, banners, and other materials "issued ... in the interests of an unlawful society," for which he can be sentenced to an additional two-year prison term and an additional RM5,000 fine.

After Kuala Lumpur police refused permission for the February 27 march, Hindraf announced its intention to press ahead, citing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association under the Malaysian constitution. Two hours before the march was to start, police arrested 15 Hindraf leaders. They also prevented approximately 30 vehicles from entering Kuala Lumpur, which were carrying campaigners trying to reach the starting point for the march. Although a few hundred people did attempt to march, they were outnumbered by police and security officers.

During the two weeks prior to the February 27 march, members of Hindraf and the Human Rights Party conducted grassroots information road shows and seminars in several Malaysian states to rally supporters. Police erected roadblocks, disrupted party forums, and detained leaders, sometimes even before events got under way, in order to hinder the groups' efforts.  Police arrested more than 60 people, all of whom were subsequently released on bail.

Hindraf was founded in December 2005 to advocate for the human rights and religious freedoms of the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia. Its first application for registration in January 2006 went unacknowledged by the registrar of societies. The status of a second application, dated October 2007, remains unclear since the registrar has failed to provide any information about its status either before or since the banning order by the home minister.

The ban on Hindraf followed a peaceful rally in November 2007 that drew between 10,000 and 30,000 participants, and that police broke up using teargas and water cannons.

On December 13, 2007, authorities detained five Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act. Two of the five were held for 16 months. The accusations against them included endangering national security, sedition, and links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, but the authorities never provided evidence to demonstrate those claims. Two days after the arrests, the home minister announced the ban on Hindraf.

The Societies Act is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely considered reflective of customary international law. Articles 19 and 20 grant everyone the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Human Rights Watch said that Malaysia should take concrete action to implement its international legal obligations to respect these rights by amending the Societies Act in the following manner:

  • Rescind the home minister's absolute discretion to declare a society unlawful;
  • Narrow the absolute right of the registrar of societies to refuse registration if he believes the applicant organization "is likely to be used for ... any purpose prejudicial to or incompatible with peace, welfare, security, public order, good order or morality"; and
  • Set clear time limits for reviewing applications.

The government has also undermined basic civil and political rights by preventing the creation of the Human Rights Party and other new political parties, Human Rights Watch said. P. Uthayakumar founded the Human Rights Party following his April 2009 release from prison and applied for registration in November 2010. But on February 20, the registrar of societies, discounting 25 pending political party applications, some of which date back to 2008, proposed capping the number of political parties in the country at the current 33.

"The government's wanton disregard for people's right to express their views is on full display in its treatment of Hindraf and the Human Rights Party," Robertson said. "Manipulating legal provisions to deny minority groups their rightful voice fools no one."

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