(New York) – Malaysia’s human rights situation deteriorated sharply during 2015, as the government increased its campaign of harassment and repression against activists, political opposition figures, and the media, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Cartoonist Zunar’s depiction of the ongoing use of criminal laws to suppress dissent in Malaysia.  

© 2015 Zunar for Human Rights Watch

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

“The Malaysian government responded to public criticism of a major corruption scandal and its persecution of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with a wave of repression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Najib Razak is trampling on fundamental rights to hush up corruption allegations and maintain his grip on power.”

Throughout 2015, Malaysian authorities arrested dozens of people under the Sedition Act for making remarks critical of the government, the judiciary, and Malaysia’s sultans. At least 33 people have been charged with sedition in the last two years, including seven opposition members of parliament. In April, the ruling coalition passed amendments to the Sedition Act to increase the penalties for violations and make it easier to use the law against online speech. The strengthening of the law was a major reversal by Prime Minister Najib, who had repeatedly promised to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a so-called Harmony Act.

The government responded to public reporting and discussions of corruption allegations involving government-owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) by suspending newspapers, blocking websites, banning the logo of Bersih (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections), arresting dozens of people for participating in peaceful protests, and charging individuals with “economic sabotage” because they lodged police reports about 1MDB in foreign countries.

The government also brought back indefinite detention without trial by passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows a government-appointed board to impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely with no possibility of judicial review. In December, it passed a sweeping National Security Council law that allows the prime minister to declare security areas within which restraints on police power are suspended.

The politically motivated prosecution of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim culminated in February when the Federal Court upheld his sodomy conviction and sentence of five years’ imprisonment. In October, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Anwar was being arbitrarily detained and demanded his immediate release and reinstatement of his political rights.

The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain under threat in Malaysia. The October decision by the Federal Court to uphold a state law prohibiting “a male person posing as a woman” seriously undermines the rights of transgender individuals in the country. There has been little progress in finding the two men who attacked LGBT rights defender Nisha Ayub with metal pipes outside her apartment in September.

“The government’s intolerance of critical speech and its ongoing campaign of arrests and prosecutions belie any claim that Malaysia is a rights-respecting democracy,” Robertson said. “If Malaysia wants to play a role on the international stage, it needs to step back from the brink and end the current campaign of repression.”