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[Press Statement] Launch of SUARAM's Annual “Malaysia Human Rights Report” for the Year of 2023

2023 constituted a disconcerting picture of the state of human rights and reform in the country, marked simultaneously by positive strides and limited progress in key areas, as well as persistent violations of rights of vulnerable groups.

Laws that violate the right to fair trial continue to be applied. SUARAM documented 3220 cases of arrests, detention and charges related to human trafficking under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA). For the first time since its inception, SOSMA was used to arrest and detain drug syndicate members, which is concerning when existing laws such as the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 are adequate. The protracted wait of at least two years by detainees in prison for trial persists, though this is cut short by a year for 23 detainees in the Geng 08 GST case. 1012 arrests were made under the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 (DD(SPM)A) in 2023. Despite longstanding calls for amendments and repeal to SOSMA, progress on that front remains slow. Though the government is receptive to amending SOSMA, no explicit timeline is yet given. Tarrying further only results in continued violation of the fundamental right to fair trial, and most importantly, the fulfilment of social and economic rights of families of detainees.

Whilst death in custody cases in 2023 may have reduced by 48% compared to the previous year, the issue of lacking data transparency persists. Access to justice for families of the deceased is also challenging and protracted. SUARAM noted six past DIC cases of which final court proceedings took place in 2023, with families pursuing justice for as long as 10 years. There is no commitment by the current administration to improve the Independent Police Conduct Commission Act 2022 (IPCC) - one of the pledges by the Pakatan Harapan coalition in its election manifesto in 2022.

Significant regression was seen in freedom of expression. Key laws such as the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 continue to be enforced. More explicit measures such as warnings by members in government and the setup of an investigation task force were implemented to exert more restrictive control over discourse related to race, religion and royalty. Five bans were enacted under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, comprising four books and the Swatch Pride watch. Raids on two bookstores were conducted, confiscating 10 books that were not on the banned book list. Threats to student autonomy in universities and artistic freedom remain palpable.

Restrictions to exercise freedom of peaceful assembly persisted. Investigations against organisers and/or participants after, and in some cases, before public assemblies, persist. SUARAM documented the number of individuals investigated to be at least 91 this year. Tactics seen in previous years such as police barricade, arrest and detention of individuals and pre-rally warnings are still used in public assemblies organised by the political opposition or held in significant public spaces such as Parliament. SUARAM documents a case of state intimidation and reprisal, in which an activist was charged in court despite being the victim of use of force by an enforcement official during the protest.

Amendments to the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) Act were passed in 2023, marking a significant step forward in strengthening the NHRI. This is especially needed when the institution’s credibility was undermined by the former Chairperson’s allegations of racial discrimination in staff appointment and subsequent defamation suit filed against a whistleblower for lodging an internal complaint on the matter.

One of the biggest milestones Malaysia achieved in 2023 is the passing of the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Bill 2023 (DR7) and the Revision of Sentence of Death and Imprisonment for Natural Life (Temporary Jurisdiction of the Federal Court) Bill 2023. With the resentencing of death row inmates in progress, gaps such as inadequate time to gather relevant mitigation evidence and insufficient consideration given to mitigating circumstances such as the inmate’s mental health condition need to be swiftly addressed.

On institutional reforms, there were commendable actions, namely the passing of the Public Finance and Fiscal Responsibility Act 2023, ongoing drafting of the Ombudsman Bill as well as empowerment of the Parliamentary Special Select Committees in function and resources. Nevertheless, other crucial reforms, such as separation of the offices of the Attorney-General and the Public Prosecutor, malapportionment, constituency development fund for the political opposition, political appointments in government-linked companies and the reinstatement of local government elections, remain pending.

Discrimination and fear continued dominating the lives of vulnerable groups. The increased prevalence of investigations and raids on migrants overshadow positive preliminary efforts by the government to improve their welfare, such as the launch of forced labour guidelines. Realisation of the right to work for refugees and self-determination for the Orang Asli remain to be seen. Basic rights of LGBTIQ and gender-diverse people regressed in 2023, as evidenced by spikes in censorship of LGBTIQ expressions, introduction of anti-LGBT Syariah laws and expansion of conversion practices. Impingements of freedom of religion and belief of religious minorities persisted. Amendments to the Federal Constitution that will worsen statelessness were proposed.

As the unity government trudges through its second year, it is crucial that it anchors all laws and policies to the Madani values that prioritise inclusivity, equal respect for all, and trust from transparency and accountability.    

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