The clampdown on dissent in Malaysia took a surreal turn yesterday (Monday) when lawyer Michelle Yesudas was told by the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar, that she was to be investigated for a tweet about rape threats.
The detention of activists also continued, with more than 70 people reported to have been arrested for protesting about the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is due to be implemented on April 1. Those arrested were denied access to lawyers for several hours.
About forty riot police were sent to the location, and there were reports of police violence. The communications director for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), Fahmi Fadzil, tweeted: “Group of detainees moved. Police rush crowd, beating ppl back including lawyers. No warnings. Unnecessary provocation.”
Amnesty International stated today: “The arrests of scores of protesters as well as two human rights lawyers in separate incidents yesterday and today in Malaysia are the latest troubling signs of an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly.”
Amnesty International’s Malaysia Researcher, Hazel Galang-Folli said: “These latest in a string of recent arrests point to a clear and worrying trend and reveal the very grim reality of the Malaysian authorities’ stance on upholding basic freedoms.
“The space for dissent and debate in Malaysia is rapidly shrinking, under the guise of punishing ‘sedition’ or maintaining public order.”
In the case of Yesudas (pictured left), who was arrested under the Sedition Act, the lawyer had posted her tweet after rape and death threats were made against the presenter of a video about hudud (Islamic law), aired by the radio station BFM.
BFM took down the satirical video from its website and YouTube channel after Aisyah Tajuddin became the target of the threats made on social media.
Aisyah said in the video that religion was being used to distract people from the real issues such as the economy and high rates of drug use and divorce. BFM said the presenter was not the author of the script and the views on the video were not her personal stance on the issue.
Yesudas, who is the legal and campaign coordinator at Lawyers for Liberty, tweeted: “… I am positively terrified that these crazy, rape frenzied people are actually the majority in my country.”
The IGP, who tweets using the handle @KBAB51, insisted that the lawyer explain herself. In his tweet to Yesudas, he said she should not stir up unrest.
Yesudas was released after giving a statement. She points out that she did not refer to religion or race in her tweet. “Can you guarantee my safety as a woman in the country?” she asked the IGP via Twitter.
There were a host of tweets in reaction to the IGP’s demand for a statement from Yesudas. “Clearly our @KBAB51 spending too much time on twitter has no idea that most women live in fear of being raped,” wrote one person.
“Is the IGP turning into the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland! Off with the heads of dissidents!” tweeted another.
“Stop harassing our lawyers,” tweeted Mandeep Singh, who was himself arrested on March 14. He was detained for three days, accused of illegal assembly.
Yesudas herself tweeted: “Say what you want, play politics and race cards all you want but I condemn threats of violence and rape made towards anyone of any race.”
She added: “If I have to answer the police because of my fear against rising crime, rape & threats and it is used against me, then the system has failed.”
Arrest under the Sedition Act
On Sunday, the executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, was also arrested under the Sedition Act for tweeting remarks about hudud, which the government in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan wants to implement.
He was arrested at an arts fair in Kuala Lumpur and was detained overnight.
On his release, Paulsen tweeted: “We are both freed and will not be cowed by the bullying tactics.” Both lawyers were released on police bail.
The IGP has been quoted as saying that Paulsen should “watch his habit and mouth” in making comments on sensitive issues such as religion. The Rakyat Post quoted the police chief as saying: “Who is Eric Paulsen to question whether the hudud law is fair or not? It’s a sensitive issue; why question that?”
Khalid Abu Bakar (pictured left) has been criticised for trawling through Twitter for opposition comments and using his account to issue warnings to government critics and to demand the arrest of those who dissent.
The deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said the police chief was creating an atmosphere of fear with his comments and policing of social media.
The Abolish Sedition Act Movement (GHAH), is urging social media users to report the IPG’s account to Twitter “to protect Twitter users from being harassed”.
The GHAH said Khalid had been using Twitter to instruct police to investigate certain people and to dictate what Malaysians could and could not be posted on social media.
Fahmi Fadzil said: “What we are seeing is that anyone who makes comment that runs counter to the official narrative will suffer some kind of retribution or will become a target of the state.
“The Inspector General of Police is using a very archaic law to investigate people who are just airing their thoughts. Malaysians are very concerned about what is happening right now, but the government does not want Malaysians to speak out.”
The government’s aim, Fahmi says, is to create a climate of fear; the idea that whatever you say can and will be used against you.
Social media is no longer the free space it used to be a few years ago, Fahmi says. “They want you to know that you are being watched, and that is not healthy for democracy.”
The way the IGP was handling himself on social media was making him look like Malaysia’s “troll par excellence”, Fahmi said, and the police chief was not being reprimanded for the unprofessional way he was acting. “You wouldn’t expect this from the top policeman of any country.”
There have been a series of arrests since Anwar was jailed, and those detained include four MPs and a state assemblyman. Most of the arrests have taken place since the March 7 rally, but there were also numerous arrests in February of activists and others criticising Anwar’s jailing.
The Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) opposition coalition, which comprises the PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is putting forward a motion in parliament to censure Khalid Abu Bakar for arresting MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is Anwar Ibrahim’s eldest daughter and a PKR vice-president, over a speech made in parliament.
Hazel Galang-Folli said: “The Malaysian authorities are increasingly using the outdated Sedition Act as a politically motivated tool to muzzle critics. At least 23 people have been arrested or have been investigated for sedition in the first quarter of 2015 alone – definitely a spike from last year’s known total of 29. This is a dangerously slippery slope into repression of all dissent, and arrests under this law, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders, must be halted immediately.”
Continued protests and arrests
Those arrested during yesterday’s anti-GST protest include one MP and several opposition party leaders. Amnesty International said at least 79 people were arrested. It is believed that at least 16 people are being detained overnight.
The arrests were made when police broke up a sit-in by about 100 people outside the Customs Department in Kelana Jaya.
The group had planned to stay until questions submitted to the Customs Department acting director Abd Gani Othman were answered.
A separate Kita Lawan (“We fight”) sit-in has been going on since Saturday afternoon next to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in central Kuala Lumpur.
There have been Kita Lawan rallies every Saturday afternoon since the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on February 10. On March 7, 10,000 people took to the streets.
Last Saturday, demonstrators marched from the SOGO department store to Merdeka Square, and a small group set up camp on the pavement opposite the famous square. They are not being allowed to enter the square.
The protesters are calling for the resignation or sacking of the IGP and are also demanding the release of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak.
Another group of protesters is on hunger strike outside the Sungai Buloh jail where Anwar is being detained.
On February 10, the federal court upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal last year, which found Anwar (pictured left) guilty of sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008, and sentenced the former deputy prime minister to five years in prison.
The verdict has been heavily criticised both locally and internationally.
Anwar is due to attend the Kuala Lumpur Syariah Court of Appeal today (Tuesday), where there will be a hearing in a qazaf (false accusation) case he originally filed in the Kuala Lumpur Syariah High Court seven years ago.
He has meanwhile applied for leave to challenge the decision barring him from attending parliament.
Anwar remains the MP for Permatang Pauh until a decision on a petition for a royal pardon, filed by his family, is made.
Anwar’s third daughter, Nurul Iman, spoke at a political rally in the Kampong Bharu area of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday night. She said all avenues would be exhausted to get her father released and she urged people to send postcards to him, and to sign a new petition calling for his release. “Show him that his sacrifice is not in vain,” she said.
Nurul Iman said that Anwar’s struggle for justice must be kept alive. “We want to make sure that he is not forgotten, and that his message will live on.”
She told the crowd about the first time Anwar was detained, under the Internal Security Act. “He was 25 years old, which is the same age I am now.”
The second time Anwar was detained, in 1998, Nurul Iman was eight years old. She recalls how hard it was for her to understand what was happening to her father and how sad she felt, not knowing what she could do to help him. When he was imprisoned again on February 10, it was like history repeating itself, she says. “But I am no longer eight years old. This time, I can help him. I can speak out.
“At first, of course, it was sad, and all of us were scared. We felt it was so surreal that it happened again, but, after a while, we felt we should not grieve anymore; we should fight and help continue the struggle.”
Nurul Iman says Anwar has been fasting in prison and has lost three kilos in weight since he was jailed, and his blood pressure is very low, but he remains in very high spirits.
Photo of Michelle Yesudas courtesy of The Rakyat Post.