Human Rights Watch Report: Malaysia 

In a nationally televised speech on Malaysia Day in September 2011, Prime Minister Seri Najib Tun Razak called for a Malaysia “which practices functional and inclusive democracy, where peace and public order are safeguarded in line with the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and respect for basic human rights and individual rights.” However he added that there had to be “checks and balances … between national security and personal freedom,” and ensuing reforms have favored security over internationally recognized human rights.         

Parliamentary elections must be held no later than April 2013, and political tensions were already high in November with both the opposition and the government alleging engagement by their political opponents in election-related intimidation and violence.    

Preventive Detention

In his September 2011 speech, Prime Minister Najib pledged to replace the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which permitted long-term detention without trial, and other rights-restricting legislation. The Banishment Act 1959 and the Restricted Residence Act 1933 were the first to be rescinded, followed by three emergency declarations and the emergency-related laws they made possible. One of the rescinded laws, the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance 1969, had been regularly used to hold criminal suspects indefinitely without charge or trial.

The Security Offences (Special Measures) 2012 Act (SOSMA) replaced the ISA on July 31, 2012. On a positive note, SOSMA reduced initial detention without charge from 60 to no more than 28 days, and required that a suspect be charged in court or released thereafter. However, other provisions reduce human rights protections, including an overly broad definition of a security offense, allowing police rather than courts to authorize interception of communications during investigations, and permitting prosecutors to conceal the source of evidence and to keep the identities of witnesses secret, thereby preventing cross-examination. Even if a suspect is acquitted under SOSMA, the law permits a series of appeals, with bail disallowed, that could result in a suspect’s indefinite detention. Malaysian authorities, using transitional authority at the time SOSMA replaced the ISA, still hold 27 ISA detainees.

Freedom of Assembly and Association

In 2012, the government continued to violate rights to free association and peaceful public assembly. While Prime Minister Najib agreed in September 2011 to review section 27 of the Police Act, which mandated police permits for public assemblies, the government hastily drafted and passed a replacement Peaceful Assembly Act on December 20, 2011.

The new law rescinded the requirement for a permit but also introduced major new restrictions, including a broad ban on “moving assemblies” of any kind. Static protests are also prohibited closer than 50 meters from many prohibited sites, making it virtually impossible to hold an assembly in an urban setting. Other restrictions include empowering the police to set assembly conditions such as time, place, and date after taking into consideration other groups’ objections or “any inherent environmental factor.” Police were also given the power to use all “reasonable force” to break up a protest.

City and federal officials sought to prevent an April 28 sit-in sponsored by Bersih 3.0, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. They barred Bersih from using Dataram Merdeka (Independence Square) in central Kuala Lumpur and barricaded the area. Nevertheless, marchers numbering in the tens of thousands walked peacefully toward the barricaded square and when the announcement came that the rally was over began a peaceful dispersal. However, a small group breached the barricades. The police reacted with excessive force in what became a four-hour onslaught of tear gas, water cannon, and indiscriminate beatings and arrests.

On July 1, 2011, Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared Bersih an illegal organization under the Societies Act. On July 24, 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court overturned that decision, ruling that the original decision was “tainted with irrationality.”

Freedom of Expression

Most major newspapers and television and radio stations remain controlled by media companies close to political parties in the government coalition. A recent amendment to the Evidence Act has raised fears that intermediary liability on the internet will further decrease freedom of expression. The provision creates a legal presumption that an owner, administrator, host, editor, or subscriber to a network service who has in their custody or control any computer from which any publication originates is presumed to have published or republished the content of the publication unless the contrary is proven.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) retains its potency despite some reforms, such as ending the need to renew licenses annually and adding judicial oversight to what was the home minister’s unchecked power to approve or reject license applications. New publications still require initial approval and licenses still may be arbitrarily revoked. Other means of control include calls from the ministry offering “advice” to editors and prison terms and fines for “maliciously” printing so-called false news. The home minister maintains absolute discretion over licensing of printing presses.

In 2012, Malaysian courts partially advanced the right of free expression. Malaysiakini, the largest online newspaper in Malaysia, had repeatedly and unsuccessfully applied to publish a daily print version. On October 1, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled the home minister’s refusal was “improper and irrational” and the application should be resubmitted. In a significant statement contradicting the prevailing government view, the judge said that a license to publish was “a right, not a privilege.” The attorney general’s chambers and the Home Ministry appealed the court’s decision.

Sisters in Islam, a local nongovernmental organization, also won a significant victory in July when the Court of Appeal dismissed a government appeal to overturn a 2010 High Court decision lifting the ban on Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, a book of essays originally banned in 2008.

A civil court’s decision that the arrest of political cartoonist Zunar under the Sedition Act and the PPPA in September 2012 was lawful had a more negative impact, reinforcing the unwillingness of printing presses, publishers, and bookstores to be associated with controversial books.   

Police Abuses and Impunity

Human Rights Watch and local civil society groups have documented police abuses, including excessive use of force during arrests, suspicious deaths in custody, failure to adequately investigate such incidents and to hold accountable those responsible; and inadequate post-mortem inquiries and investigations. Victims of police violence reported few effective avenues for redress and decried an apparent culture of police impunity for mistreatment.

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