(Bangkok) - The Malaysian government should immediately end its crackdown on the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) and release everyone arbitrarily detained for involvement in its activities, Human Rights Watch said today. Police should return all Bersih-related materials confiscated during the past week and cease pursuing spurious criminal charges, including sedition and "waging war against the king," against peaceful political activists, Human Rights Watch said.
On June 29, 2011, police raided Bersih's office at the organization Empower, arresting seven people and confiscating computers, office equipment, Bersih literature, posters, and t-shirts. According to the inspector general of police, Tan Sri Ismail Omar, 101 people have been arrested on various charges in the past five days for promoting what he termed an "illegal assembly," namely Bersih's planned march in Kuala Lumpur on July 9.
"The Malaysian government's crackdown on an electoral reform group shows utter disregard both for free expression and for the democratic process," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments that elected Malaysia to a second term on the UN Human Rights Council might feel duped."
The Malaysian government, instead of responding substantively to Bersih's eight-point electoral reform program, has begun an apparent campaign to discredit the coalition and to scare off Malaysians who had considered participating in the July 9 march.
Thirty members of the opposition Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) remain in custody in Penang after being arrested on June 25 on the way to a political rally under the draconian charge of "waging war against the king" of Malaysia. The inspector general of police told journalists that "foreign elements" - whom he declined to identify - were involved and would take advantage of the unrest if the rally went ahead.
Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia recognizes the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, speech and expression that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia pledged in an official communication to other governments on March 9, 2010 that it "reaffirms its full commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights at both the domestic and international levels."
The government is seeking to prosecute Bersih leaders and activists under laws such as the Sedition Act of 1948 and the Police Act of 1967 in violation of fundamental rights recognized under international law, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to end its crackdown on Bersih and instead promptly initiate discussions with the Bersih steering committee and representatives of the 60 civil society groups that endorsed Bersih's proposed electoral reforms.
The government should also heed the June 27 call by the governmental Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and permit the July 9 Bersih rally to proceed. It should also permit possible counter-Bersih marches being planned by United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Youth and Perkasa and should ensure that police act in a nonpartisan manner to keep all the marches safely apart.
"Prime Minister Najib Razak should be welcoming efforts to reform the country's elections instead of jailing those urging reform," Robertson said. "By continuing these scare tactics, the Malaysian government is seriously damaging the country's reputation abroad."