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(Bangkok) – Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promised reforms did not significantly improve legal protections for basic liberties in Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. Press restrictions, the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, and intimidation of rights groups exposed the limits of government adherence to internationally recognized human rights.  

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said, government respect for basic rights and liberties is likely to be tested in the run-up to national parliamentary elections, which must be held no later than June 2013. 

“The Malaysian government’s promised human rights agenda fell far short in practice in 2012,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “As elections approach, the government will need to demonstrate its willingness to uphold the rights of all citizens, whatever their political views.”

On April 28, 2012, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters were met by water cannon, teargas, beatings, and arrests during a march and sit-in led by Bersih, a coalition of civil rights organizations, to demand clean and fair elections. A government committee set up to investigate the incident has done little to shed light on the actions of the authorities on that day. Negotiations between the police and a coalition of opposition political parties and activist groups resulted in a peaceful gathering of the “People’s Uprising Rally” in Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on January 12, 2013.

Revisions to longstanding abusive laws had less of an impact on the ground than was hoped, Human Rights Watch said. The replacement of section 27 of the Police Act by the Peaceful Assembly Act did not rescind the absolute power of the police to grant permits for demonstrations. Instead the new law allows police to effectively outlaw marches by prohibiting “moving assemblies” by declaring innumerable sites off limits, and by giving the police the power to set time, date, and place conditions. The People’s Uprising Rally organizers agreed to 27 conditions – including on appropriate slogans – before their rally got approval, and the government is currently investigating compliance with three of the conditions.

In another legal reform that fell short of international standards, the Malaysian government repealed the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA), and substituted the Security Offenses (Special Measures) 2012 Act (SOSMA). SOSMA reduced arbitrary detention to 28 days instead of the indeterminate period permitted under the ISA but added new infringements of rights. The law’s definition of a security defense is overbroad. Police, rather than judges, have the power to authorize communication intercepts, and prosecutors can utilize information as evidence without disclosing sources. Moreover, should a suspect be acquitted and the state appeal that decision, the acquitted suspect may be detained in prison or tethered to a monitoring device until the appeal is settled, a process that could take years. 

Government harassment of human rights defenders continued in 2012, Human Rights Watch said. In response to spurious allegations by Jaringan Melayu Malaysia, an organization with close ties to Malaysia’s leaders, the government pursued a politically motivated investigation of Suaram, a leading Malaysian human rights organization in operation since 1989. At least six government agencies are seeking to find Suaram’s registration and operations illegal. Investigators have harassed staff and supporters, and threatened them with arrest while government politicians and government-controlled media outlets have publicly attacked the organization. On September 3, a week before investigations had begun, a government minister accused Suaram of keeping “highly suspicious” accounts and said that “99.4 percent” of its activities were “money collecting.”

Groups supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) people fared even worse, Human Rights Watch said. In two speeches in 2012, Prime Minister Najib condoned discrimination by singling out the LGBT community as a threatening “deviant culture” that “would not have a place in the country.” Not only was the annual Seksualiti Merdeka (Sexual Diversity, in English) festival canceled in 2012 amidst ongoing intimidation of the LGBT community, but a court refused a judicial review of the police ban on the 2011 festival, a decision that festival organizers say leaves future festivals in legal limbo.

“The Malaysian authorities should respect the fundamental rights of non-discrimination and equality, and stop demonizing people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director for the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch.

Reforms to freedom of the press also proved to be less than anticipated, Human Rights Watch said. The Printing Presses and Publications Act was amended, dropping the requirement for annual licensing of publications and ending the Home Affairs Minister’s power to award or rescind publishing licenses without court review. However, the revised law still requires that new publications obtain initial approval, and licenses still may be arbitrarily revoked.

The government appealed a 2011 Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling that a “license to publish is a right, not a privilege,” therefore requiring review of the government’s “improper and irrational” unwillingness to issue a license to the largest on-line newspaper, Malaysiakini, to publish a daily print edition. 

An amendment to the Evidence Act provides that computer owners and operators of computer networks are publishers and thus responsible for the content displayed on their screens unless they could prove they had nothing to do with the content. This raises concerns about the presumption of innocence as well as free expression.

Malaysian police appear to routinely violate the rights of persons in custody, Human Rights Watch said. Police personnel have employed unnecessary or excessive force during demonstrations, while carrying out arrests, and in police lockups. Deaths in custody, routinely attributed to disease, go uninvestigated, suspects are beaten to coerce confessions, and criminal suspects die in suspicious circumstances during apprehension by police. Alleged police abuses go uninvestigated.

Malaysian immigration law still does not recognize refugees and asylum seekers, and prohibits them from working and their children from going to school. Unauthorized migrants face arrest and detention in unsanitary and overcrowded immigration detention centers, and caning for violating the immigration law. Anti-trafficking efforts conflate human trafficking with people smuggling, and punishes rather than protects trafficking victims by holding them in inadequate, locked shelters that resemble detention centers rather than care facilities. The government continues to do little to protect migrant domestic workers from beatings and sexual abuse by their employers.

“Numerous sectors of Malaysia’s economy depend on migrant workers, yet Malaysia continues to treat them as disposable people who can be used and abused,” said Robertson. “The government should fully respect migrant workers’ rights and stop re-victimizing those who have been trafficked to Malaysia.”

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