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Malaysia: Human Rights Reforms Stall

Backtracking on Free Expression, Accountability, LGBT Rights

Protesters hold placards during a protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, April 14, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf
(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s promised human rights reforms stalled in 2019 as the government either backed away from or delayed action on its campaign commitments, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

“Malaysia’s reform process is failing because the ruling coalition’s leaders have lacked the political will to stand up for principles in the face of political opposition,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government needs to make a renewed effort to follow through on its promises for human rights reforms.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The government has undertaken some positive reform steps, such as repealing the Anti-Fake News law, advancing a draft law to establish an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission, and strengthening parliamentary independence to consider rights issues. However, it has failed to achieve reforms in key areas such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Malaysia withdrew from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in April, barely a month after becoming a formal party to the treaty. The government also retreated from a commitment to completely abolish the death penalty. It recently asserted that it will instead introduce legislation to end the mandatory application of capital punishment for various crimes.

The government has also failed to carry out commitments to abolish or reform a range of abusive laws, including the much-abused Sedition Act. The law continues to be used, particularly against those criticizing Malaysia’s royalty.

Despite promising to repeal “draconian provisions” of the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), the government continues to use the law, which allows 28 days of preventive detention with no judicial review for a range of “security offenses” and sets special procedures for trial of such cases, which violate the right to a fair trial. Twelve people, including two Democratic Action Party lawmakers, were detained under the act in October on allegations of supporting a defunct Sri Lankan rebel group.

Police abuse remains a serious problem in Malaysia, as does a lack of accountability for such abuses. In July, the government submitted a bill to create a long-sought independent police misconduct commission. However, some of the bill’s provisions raise concerns about the independence and authority of the proposed commission.

Discrimination against LGBT people in Malaysia is pervasive. Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to 20 years in prison, while numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people. In November, five men were sentenced to prison terms and six strokes of the cane for “attempted intercourse against the order of nature.” Four were caned on November 19.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other government officials have made statements expressing a lack of support for the LGBT community. In June, Mahathir said that the discussion of LGBT rights was being promoted by “Western countries” and was “unsuitable” for Malaysia.

“The Malaysian government’s human rights record will be judged on its accomplishments, not its promises,” Robertson said. “The government can still turn its record around by standing up and acting on behalf of the country’s marginalized communities.”

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