By Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 23 May 2014
In 1998, SUARAM coordinated and published the first ever Malaysian Human Rights Report, which had been painstakingly researched and written by a committee of representatives of Concerned Malaysian NGOs (COMANGO). In the 15 years since then, SUARAM has without fail, published an annual report that documents and monitors human rights violations in Malaysia. It is a report that is eagerly awaited, not only by local civil society but also by international human rights organisations and foreign observers of Malaysian society. For us, the importance of this work is central to the campaign and struggle for social and political reform.
In that same year, 1998, the UN adopted the Human Rights Defenders Declaration. It includes the right to defend the rights of peoples, to access international organisations, to seek effective remedy and the right to document human rights violations. As human rights defenders, SUARAM’s activists denounce human rights abuses, fight impunity and attempt to change discriminatory and repressive systems through documenting & monitoring, awareness raising, lobbying and coordinating social movements.
“Extreme human rights”?
Recently, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the new threat to Islam and Muslims is what he called “human rightism” or “extreme human rights” and even humanism and secularism! Has our current Prime Minister forgotten that our Federal Constitution is secular, a fact that our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, reiterated many, many times before? Perhaps he has also forgotten that Malaysia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is also necessarily secular and humanist and thus inclusive of all.
It is unclear what he means by the phrase “extreme human rights” – could he be referring to the human rights of people who indulge in extreme sports? Yet, sloppiness in his use of words is no laughing matter. If the Prime Minister is to be taken seriously, he needs to be more rigorous with his use of language. As Socrates once said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”
For his information, on 28 February 2012, Ahmad Rozian Abd Ghani, Undersecretary of Information and Public Diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs proudly released a statement affirming our country’s membership of the Human Rights Council:
“Malaysia had been elected by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to serve as Commission of Human Rights member for the periods 1993-1998, 2001-2003 and 2005-2007. In light of such history, the allegation that ‘Malaysia doesn’t believe in human rights as it is understood by the international community’ is false, misleading and mischievous… As a member of the Human Rights Council, Malaysia will continue its commitment to realise the nations and the council’s objectives to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights is equitable and just for all.”
It is worth reminding those who want to introduce hudud laws in this country that apart from its violation of the Federal Constitution, such laws are anathema to international human rights principles to which our country subscribes, namely, the principles of “equality before the law”, the “right to life” and “right not to be subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
Having edited that very first Malaysian Human Rights Report in 1998, it is indeed a great pleasure to see the publication of our 2013 report on the 25th anniversary of SUARAM. We even have two new chapters on two areas of human rights that have been neglected thus far, namely, the rights of the homeless and foreign spouses of Malaysians.
Harassment of SUARAM
2013 saw the same regressive trend in human rights observance as in previous years. Yet SUARAM, a small human rights organisation was harassed as never before. It was a baptism of fire for the organisation since 2013 was the year that the Malaysian government unleashed no less than six government agencies to harass our organisation to see if any charges could be pinned on us. They carted away our files and accounts while staff and board members and even those from yesteryears were called up for interrogation by these government agencies. All in all, many hours of tax payers’ money were wasted. The supreme irony was that during this time when Bank Negara was tasked with investigating if SUARAM was guilty of money laundering, an UMNO official in Sabah was caught by the Hong Kong police for money laundering RM40 million of dubious origin!
The public could see that this was merely payback time for SUARAM’s complaint to the French courts for what we suspect to be concealed commissions in the RM 7billion procurement of the Scorpene submarines!
After many months of relentless harassment of SUARAM, the government agencies were forced to admit that their allegations didn’t have a leg to stand on. In other words, we were found to be squeaky clean! Our lawyers even thought that we deserved an A+ for the way we kept our accounts compared to many government agencies whose accounts have been exposed by the Auditor-General year after year as shockingly questionable.
And to crown it all, the government’s premier news organ The New Straits Times had to eat humble pie and make an abject “mother of editorial apologies” to SUARAM and the other NGOs that had been maligned by the state organ as “foreign agents”.
Since the state harassment of SUARAM, the support we have received from the Malaysian public has been overwhelming – for that we have to thank the Malaysian government!
2013: No one liable for murdering Altantuya
On 23 August 2013, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar were acquitted by the Court of Appeal of the murder of Altantuya Shaaribuu. Altantuya Shaaribuu was the alleged lover of Abdul Razak Baginda, the former aide to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Abdul Razak Baginda was involved in the purchase of Malaysia’s most expensive defence procurements, namely, the two Scorpene submarines costing more than RM7 billion from the French company DCNS. Altantuya allegedly played a part in the negotiations over the submarines purchase. She was murdered in a forest in Puncak Alam in October 2006 and her remains were blown up with C4 explosives. Abdul Razak Baginda was acquitted of the murder on 31 October 2008 without his defence being called, and the prosecution did not appeal his acquittal.
In June 2013, the Court of Appeal granted Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar leave to include two new grounds of appeal, namely “adverse publicity”, and that this may have prejudiced the mind of the trial judge, leading to a possible mistrial. With the acquittal of Sirul and Azilah, it appears that no one is liable for the murder of Altantuya Shaaribuu. This is a scandal that exposes the Malaysian criminal justice system and a gross violation of human rights involving the cynical murder of a young Mongolian woman by state agents.
GE13: Popular aspirations for reform
2013 was marked by the 13th General Elections which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) getting only 47 per cent of the total popular vote while the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat won 52 per cent. Malaysia’s May 5th general election came under intense scrutiny internationally. There were allegations of vote buying and other reported irregularities. The government also enforced a media blackout of the opposition, with Malaysia’s mainstream media refusing to give more than 10 minutes of air time to opposition parties during the election campaign.
The outcome of the 2013 General Elections was a manifestation of the popular aspiration for reforms and greater respect for human rights in the country. It had come through great disappointment with the increasing failure of state institutions, such as the police, judiciary, and others to uphold justice, equality, human rights and democracy.
Malaysia’s failure to meet 2009 UPR recommendations
The year was marked also by Malaysia’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council during which Malaysia’s credibility at the international level took a further blow. The 103 UN-member states at Malaysia’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) highlighted the fact that many of the previous recommendations made during the 2009 UPR had still not been met while new areas of concern are emerging.
Human rights concerns include Malaysia’s poor ratification record on core international human rights treaties; restrictions on freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; the preventive detention of criminal suspects for long periods of time without charge or access to a judge; human rights violations at the hands of the security forces including torture and other ill-treatment; and the retention of the death penalty, particularly mandatory sentencing for drugs and other non-violent offences. Other concerns include the treatment of migrant workers, indigenous peoples, refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as freedom of belief and religion, LGBT rights and discrimination.
Despite an initial pledge made in 2009 to “consider ratification” of key international human rights instruments, Malaysia has yet to ratify core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Malaysia has also yet to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor the International Convention on Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families.
Detention without trial
In 2013, amendments to the Penal Code brought back detention without trial in a new form, namely, the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA) 1959. In 2011, the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Emergency Ordinance (EO) were repealed. Despite the estimated 2,000 EO detainees released when the law was repealed, the abolition of the ISA did not have any effect on the people who were still detained under the act. Documentation and monitoring by SUARAM and the Abolish ISA Movement showed that in 2013, there were still six (6) detainees behind bars, without charge or judicial review, who were arrested under this law.
Preventive detention also continues with the Internal Security Act’s replacement, viz. the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) passed in June 2012 and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 (DDA).
Police Abuse of Power
Abuse of power by the police remained unchecked while the Government continued to drag its feet in setting up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) that had been recommended by the Royal Police Commission in 2005. In 2013, SUARAM recorded 12 cases of deaths in police custody while a total of 124 people were shot dead by the police from 2009 to August 2013.
Freedom of Expression
Press freedom continued to decline in world rankings with Malaysia placed at an all-time low position of 145 out of 179 countries, the country’s worst showing since 2002. Malaysia’s 13th general election saw increased attacks on freedom of expression. In April 2013, just days after parliament had been dissolved and new elections declared, various alternative media websites including Free Malaysia Today, Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and Sarawak Report were targeted by sustained DDoS attacks. Independent radio stations Radio Free Sarawak and Radio Free Malaysia also had their broadcasts systematically jammed.
Freedom of Assembly
The Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA 2012) was enacted by the government apparently “to uphold, protect and promote freedom of assembly” in 2012. The Act is riddled with inconsistencies. For example, there are contradictions in the definition of a moving assembly and a street protest. At least 26 people were charged under the PAA 2012 during the post-election rallies and 33 others were charged under Section 143, while 17 people were charged under Section 147 of the Penal Code for unlawful assembly and rioting.
Refugees, Migrants and Asylum Seekers
Refugees and asylum seekers continued to be arrested, detained, imprisoned, whipped, and deported by law enforcement authorities with governmental sanction. The efforts and ability of the UNHCR to protect refugees and asylum seekers are limited and restricted by the government’s refusal to accept any recommendation pertaining to refugees and their recognition. It is not uncommon for UNHCR officials to be denied access to detainees to verify if they have legitimate refugee claims, as happened in June, 2013 when, sectarian clashes between Myanmar nationals prompted authorities to detain foreign workers at the Selayang wholesale market and charged them with entering the country illegally.
Racial and religious intolerance
The year also saw the perpetuation of racial and religious intolerance as a result of heightened politicisation of race and religion by the BN Government after its loss in the 13th general election. Throughout Malaysia’s modern political history, the race-based ruling coalition has continued to invoke the “spectre of racial conflict” to consolidate power and to justify its control of power especially in times of political crisis especially during the UMNO party election.
To conclude, the 2013 Malaysian Human Rights Report once again reveals the misconduct of a recalcitrant government that is not prepared to govern according to the international human rights principles it has committed to. SUARAM has once again given its best to document and monitor all the violations of, as well as adherence to universal human rights. I sincerely hope that SUARAM will be able to publish a Malaysian Human Rights Report for years to come irrespective of which coalition is in power. For that, we need the support of all Malaysians who are prepared to defend human rights, democracy and justice.