Lawyers and activists in Kuala Lumpur on November 29, 2011, protest the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which hours later passed parliament, the first step toward enactment into law.  

© 2011 Reuters

(New York) – Malaysia fell far short during 2011 in meeting Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pledges to “uphold civil liberties” and build a “functional and inclusive democracy,” Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. Human rights and political reform are likely to be important issues in upcoming national elections, widely expected to be called during the first half of 2012.

During 2011, the government arbitrarily detained outspoken critics, teargassed and assaulted thousands who peacefully marched in support of clean and fair elections, and replaced long-existing restrictions on free assembly with even more draconian controls.

“Malaysia’s leaders are fooling themselves by thinking they can backtrack on public promises to respect the rights to demonstrate peacefully and criticize the government without fear,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The more Prime Minister Najib and government politicians play their game of big talk, little action on rights, the more they should expect popular pushback.”

In its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the formation of rights-respecting democracies, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

In Malaysia, Najib laid out reforms on September 15 that promised repeal of laws permitting prolonged detention without judicial review, including the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance; changes in section 27 of the Police Act that authorized local police chiefs to refuse permits for public assemblies and demonstrations; and amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act that require annual licensing of publications.

The government took some positive steps by repealing two infrequently used restrictive laws, the Restricted Residence Act and the Banishment Act, and later revoking emergency proclamations from 1966, 1969, and 1977 that authorized application of the Emergency Ordinance. However, that progress was undermined by the hasty passage of a new Peaceful Assembly Act, which bans all “assemblies in motion,” such as marches and processions; gives police officials arbitrary powers over any public meetings; and contains such an expansive list of sites where rallies are prohibited that conducting a protest in an urban area will be extremely difficult.

“Malaysia’s new public assembly law is even more restrictive than the law it replaced,” Robertson said. “This is hardly the ‘reform’ that Malaysia needs.”

Malaysian police repeatedly limited peaceful assembly, association, and expression in 2011. Starting in late May, when the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) announced a July 9 March for Democracy to press for electoral reforms, the government systematically targeted the movement’s leaders and followers. The government declared the organization illegal under the Societies Act, arrested supporters for wearing Bersih T-shirts, raided the organization’s secretariat, arbitrarily detained leaders of the Malaysian Socialist Party (Parti Sosialis Malaysia, PSM) under the Emergency Ordinance, issued travel bans to keep Bersih leaders out of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and closed down the projected march route. When these measures failed to stop the march, security forces assaulted the peaceful demonstrators with teargas and chemically infused water from water cannons, and arrested 1,697 people.

“The Malaysian authorities’ crushing of Bersih’s peaceful march showed the government’s true face as an entrenched power willing to run roughshod over basic rights to maintain control,” Robertson said. “Apparently Malaysians are only allowed to speak and assemble freely when they support the government.”

In November, the government used ISA to detain 13 people it accused of being terrorists. Despite its stated intention to repeal the ISA, the government continued to detain the 13 without charging them with specific offenses under the Malaysian criminal code.

On January 9, 2012, a Kuala Lumpur court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of engaging in consensual, same-sex relations on the basis that DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution may have been tainted. The case against Anwar was politically motivated and plagued with irregularities, Human Rights Watch said.  During the trial, the prosecution refused to turn over key evidence as required by the Malaysian criminal procedure code. 

Malaysia should revoke its colonial-era law criminalizing consensual same-sex relations, Human Rights Watch said. It also should replace its law on non-consensual sexual acts with a gender neutral law on rape.

“Anwar’s case should never have gone to trial,” Robertson said. “Malaysia should stop using its outdated sodomy law to slander political opponents, and live up to its status as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council by repealing all laws that criminalize consensual same-sex relations.”

In 2011, Malaysia made no improvements to its immigration policies, which make no distinction among refugees, asylum seekers, trafficking victims, and undocumented migrants. A proposed refugee swap agreement with Australia was struck down by Australia’s High Court, which said it did not require Malaysia to protect asylum seekers. Malaysia lacks needed protections for trafficking victims, and migrant domestic workers remain particularly vulnerable – in part because they are exempt from key provisions of Malaysia’s Employment Act.

“Malaysia’s key trade partners, including the US, the EU, and Australia, should remind the government that respect for human rights is a core element of a flourishing and inclusive democracy,” Robertson said.