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(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should act to ensure that the home minister’s support for the police to “shoot first” when apprehending criminal suspects is not police policy, Human Rights Watch said today. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi made remarks in a speech in Malacca on October 6, 2013, that showed gross indifference for the right to life and the rights of the country’s minority populations.

In his speech, Zahid claimed that 28,000 of some 40,000 gang members in the country were Indian Malaysians who prey on the majority ethnic Malay population. In an audio recording made public by the online news portal Malaysiakini, he said, “What is the situation of robbery victims, murder victims during shootings? Most of them are our Malays. Most of them are our race. I think that the best way is we no longer compromise with them. There is no need to give them any warning. If [we] get the evidence, [we] shoot first.”

Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to remove the home minister for the discriminatory remarks which disregard the right to life. 

“Home Minister Zahid is Malaysia’s top law enforcement official, yet he is promoting the illegal use of lethal force,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Najib should be clear he won’t tolerate such statements or unlawful practices, which show a callous disregard for basic rights.”

Various incidents suggest that Malaysian police have at times adopted a “shoot first” policy, Human Rights Watch said. For example, in a predawn raid in Penang on August 19, police shot and killed five ethnic Indians who police alleged were secret society members. Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar announced the men opened fire after police ordered them to open the door, an account that was contradicted by P. Waythamoorthy, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Photos of the bodies suggest that the men were shot at point-blank range.

In April 2012, police in Cheras fatally shot three men who police alleged had robbed a jewelry store. The three, Noor Azman Othman, Aidi Noor Hafizal Othman, and Saufi Ahmad, had multiple wounds, particularly to their heads, with Noor Azman shot a total of eight times. Contrary to the police accounts, a second postmortem strongly suggested the wounds were from shots at a close range with a downward bullet trajectory, indicating the men were either kneeling or lying on the ground when they were killed.

A “shoot first” policy by law enforcement personnel violates international human rights law and standards. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely accepted as reflecting customary international law, states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” Principle 1 of the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions provides that “executions shall not be carried out under any circumstances,” nor may “[e]xceptional circumstances… be invoked as a justification of such executions.” The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement states in article 3 that law enforcement officials should “use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.” Principle 9 of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

“Killings of criminal suspects by Malaysian police suggest that Minister Zahid’s disturbing remarks may already reflect the practice of some law enforcement officials,” Robertson said. “Too many people have died in a hail of police bullets for Malaysia’s leaders to continue to sit on their hands.”

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