(New York) – Prime Minister Najib Razak abandoned his pledge to revoke Malaysia’s repressive sedition law and oversaw a wave of arrests of opposition politicians and social activists, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015. The authorities continued their politically motivated prosecution of parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy.
“Prime Minister Najib’s shameful reversal of his pledge to end sedition shows his willingness to put politics over human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia’s human rights are in a downward spiral because the government evidently believes that continued rule depends on suppressing speech, harassing opposition groups, and targeting prominent figures with legal action.”
In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.
During 2014, Malaysian authorities arrested dozens of people under the Sedition Act for making remarks critical of the government, its political leaders, the ruling party, and Malaysia’s sultans. At least 20 people were charged, including four senior opposition members of parliament. The crackdown generated public opposition from the Malaysia Bar Council and other organizations, and a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the sedition act.
Najib, who in 2012 had promised to repeal the Sedition Act, announced on November 27, 2014, that the law would instead be revised and strengthened to penalize those who violate the sanctity of Islam and other religions or call for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak from Malaysia.
The Malaysian authorities also continued their politically motivated prosecutions to cripple the political opposition. In March, an appeals court overturned a 2012 not guilty verdict against parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges and sentenced him to a five-year prison term in a rushed judicial proceeding. Should the Federal Court uphold his conviction, he faces imprisonment and loss of his seat in parliament. The government’s repeated prosecutions of Anwar under the sodomy law (penal code article 377), invoked only seven times since 1938, highlights the dangers this discriminatory law poses so long as it remains on the books.
The Royal Malaysian Police continued to abuse rights of detainees in police custody with impunity. There were at least 10 new cases of custodial deaths in 2014, and police used excessive force during apprehension of suspects. However, police stymied proposals for an effective and independent external oversight such as an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.
Malaysia’s image as a moderate Muslim country was tarnished by new government restrictions on freedom of expression and association in 2014. The government-controlled Registrar of Societies tightened its restrictive oversight on civil society groups seen as critical of the government, refused newspaper licenses to critical outlets, and prosecuted an activist on film censorship charges.
The government continued to vilify lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. However, in November 2014, in an unprecedented action, the Negeri Sembilan appeals court unanimously ruled that a Sharia law ordinance prohibiting cross-dressing was unconstitutional. Senior national and state government officials criticized the decision as “anti-Islamic,” with a senior minister calling for Muslims to defend Islamic teachings “by any method.”
“The Malaysian government appears to be resting its global reputation on its new term at the UN Security Council rather than addressing the country’s serious rights problems,” Robertson said. “The government will need to reverse course on rights in 2015 if it wants to truly bolster its international standing.”