Focus on Malaysia’s declining freedoms at 29th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council

Geneva, 18 June 2015: Malaysian human rights defenders and activists attended the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council this week for a series of advocacy meetings to highlight Malaysia’s deteriorating human rights records and crackdown on civil liberties. Regional human rights organisation, Forum Asia, organised a side event on Malaysia on 15 June at the UN headquarters in Geneva, titled “Malaysia – Freedoms Under Siege”. The forum focused on the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association through selective use of regressive laws such as the Sedition Act and Peaceful Assembly Act. Adam Adli, a student activist facing one year imprisonment under the Sedition Act; Nurul Nuha Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim and Head Coordinator of the March 2 Freedom Campaign; and Wong Kar Fai, a representative of Empower Malaysia were panelists.


Adam Adli and Nurul Nuha Anwar presented their personal testimonies and experiences of facing crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association in Malaysia. Adam, who is currently out on bail, will appeal his one-year sentence under the Sedition Act on 25 June 2015. The student activist has to date, received one of the harshest sentences under the ongoing Sedition dragnet for a post GE13 speech in which he urged Malaysians to protest the widely contested election results. The prosecution is now counter appealing for a harsher sentence against Adam Adli.


Adam linked the increase in prosecutions and arrests to an emboldened Malaysian public, “It is not the people who are under threat, but the government who feel threatened. But over time, more and more people have come out to fearlessly protest and criticise the government.” Nurul Nuha also delivered testimony about her father’s imprisonment via Skype, while connecting it to an intensified use of the Sedition Act on those who were perceived as critical of the government. She also affirmed the need for critical voices in Malaysia, “Assembling to express dissent about unjust laws is an essential part of the democratic process. We should embrace a diversity of opinions as part of the process of developing a better Malaysia.”


Meanwhile, Wong Kar Fai spoke about the wider context of the use of regressive laws in Malaysia, and the implications of recent amendments to existing laws such as the Sedition Act, and the Prevention of Crime Act, as well as the tabling of new regressive laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The activists were also in Geneva for meetings with various desk officers and Special Rapporteurs to give updates on the current human rights’ situation in Malaysia.


In addition to the side event on Malaysia, Adam Adli and Bala Chelliah, SUARAM International lead coordinator in Geneva, attended the interactive dialogue by the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly and Association on 17 and 18 June 2015. Adam delivered an oral statement on behalf of Forum Asia on 18 June, which noted the increase of digital surveillance by Asian governments, “We note with particular concern the risks faced by human rights defenders in Asia, including threats, harassment, intimidation and criminalisation as a result of digital surveillance deployed by governments in the region. We thus stress the critical importance of online security to the work of human rights defenders, and call on the Special Rapporteur to work closely with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in this regard.” Earlier in his opening remarks, David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression had concluded, after his study on digital security, that encryption and anonymity were essential to the right to freedom of expression and opinion in today’s digital world.


During the interactive dialogue, Bala Chelliah delivered a joint oral statement from SUARAM and Aliran. Speaking of Malaysia’s responsibility to uphold civil liberties, he said, “The overall trend seems to be to use these repressive laws to intimidate anyone who criticises the authorities to curtail their rights to Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly and Association. Malaysia has been recently elected to sit on the UN Security Council and they also currently hold the Chair of Asean; they should, therefore, be championing these Rights rather than suppressing them.” Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, had said during his opening remarks that little progress had been made in this area since his last report to the Council. He also said that authorities increasingly cracked down on peaceful protests and stifled criticism with unnecessary force.


Documentation by SUARAM Malaysia indicates an increase in the application of the Sedition Act. SUARAM notes that the total number of arrests under the Sedition Act has increased tremendously in the past three years. From 7 arrests in 2012, it increased to 18 in 2013, and jumped to 44 in 2014, with 12 charged. The total number of arrests as of May 2015 is 37. Those who were arrested include social activists, opposition leaders, students, academics, a cartoonist, lawyers and social media commenters.


SUARAM Malaysia is a human rights NGO based in Malaysia.

SUARAM International is a partner organisation of SUARAM Malaysia.