The Malaysian government has gone on a binge of prosecutions of critics and is using broad and vaguely worded laws to criminalise peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report released today (Tuesday).
“Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government have repeatedly broken promises to revise laws that criminalise peaceful expression,” said HRW’s Asia division director, Brad Adams. “Instead, Malaysia has gone on a binge of prosecutions of critics. The government is making a mockery of its claims to democracy and fundamental rights by treating criticism as a crime.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to drop all pending charges and investigations against those who are being prosecuted “for the exercise of their freedom of speech or their right to participate in peaceful assemblies”, halt the abuse of the legal process to harass and detain critics, and amend or repeal relevant laws to bring them into line with international human rights standards.
The new report, entitled “Creating a Culture of Fear: The Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia”, highlights what HRW calls “a disturbing trend of abuse of the legal process, including late-night arrests and unjustifiable remands, and a pattern of selective prosecution”.
HRW quotes Yap Swee Seng, the former executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Voice of the People, or Suaram), who said: “They are creating a culture of fear. If you engage in any talk of public interest, the police may come to your house, you may be arrested, taken to the police station, remanded. Even members of parliament are treated that way.”
During 18 months of investigations, HRW interviewed lawyers, opposition politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and academics in Malaysia and London.
Focusing largely on the period since the 2013 election, the report analyses such laws as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act, and various provisions of the penal code.
“Creating a Culture of Fear” documents how Najib’s government has arrested and prosecuted opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and others, suspended news media, blocked websites, and declared peaceful protests “unlawful”.
Najib took office in April 2009 pledging to uphold civil liberties and exhibit regard for the fundamental rights of Malaysians, HRW states.
In the 2013 elections, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition managed to stay in power, but lost the popular vote. The government’s commitment to reform dissipated, and a crackdown on its critics began.
That crackdown has intensified in the past year in the face of rising public discontent over issues ranging from the imposition of a new Goods and Services Tax (GST) to the government’s response to a corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose board of advisors is chaired by Najib.
In Najib’s first term of office, the Malaysian government rescinded several laws, including the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which had been regularly used to restrict civil and political rights.
During the campaign leading up to the 2013 elections, Najib promised to repeal the notorious Sedition Act as well.
However, this year, the government passed the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which, HRW points out, permits indefinite detention without trial or the hope of judicial review.
In November 2014, Najib reneged on his promise to repeal the Sedition Act and announced that the law would instead “be strengthened and made more effective”.
In April 2015, the government pushed through amendments providing for harsher penalties and further restrictions on speech, particularly on social media.
Arrest and remand
In a section entitled “Abusive Police Tactics and Selective Prosecution”, the new report states that, in some cases, the police in Malaysia appear to be using arrest and remand as a form of preventive detention.
“The use of overly broad laws to crack down on dissent has been accompanied by a disturbing use of aggressive tactics that seem designed to harass and frighten those critical of the government.
“Instead of asking government critics to come to the police station to make a statement, the police arrest them, often at night, and sometimes with threatening and unnecessary displays of force.”
The report cites the example of the arrest of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) MP Khalid Samad after a protest rally on March 28 this year. Six carloads of police came to the MP’s house at 3.20 a.m. to arrest him for sedition and unlawful assembly. “Many of the officers were carrying M16 assault rifles,” HRW said. “He was released from custody at 9.30 p.m. He has not yet been charged with an offence.”
Charged for sedition
The HRW report highlights the government’s relentless pursuit of cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar (pictured left), who faces charges that include nine counts of alleged sedition, one for each of nine tweets he sent criticising the federal court’s decision to uphold a sodomy conviction against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
In February, the federal court upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal last year, which found Anwar guilty of sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008.
Anwar (pictured left), who is de-facto leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
One of the cartoons Zunar posted on Twitter after Anwar’s jailing showed Najib as the judge in Anwar’s case. “Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence,” he tweeted. “The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative.” He also tweeted: “Today Malaysia is seen as a country without law.”
Human Rights Watch also highlights the case of the University of Malaya law professor Azmi Sharom, who is facing trial on charges of sedition for expressing his legal opinion that actions taken by the government in Perak more than six years ago were illegal.
“I was a law professor expressing a legal opinion,” Azmi said.
The federal court has rejected Azmi’s constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act, finding the law consistent with the Malaysian constitution’s provisions on freedom of speech, so his case will now proceed to trial.
Detained for protesting
HRW also highlights the case of student activist Adam Adli (pictured left), who has been arrested six times for participating in peaceful protests against the government and for calling on others to do the same.
In September 2014, he was convicted of sedition for a speech protesting against the 2013 general election, and sentenced to one year in jail.
He is currently on bail pending appeal, and is now facing a new charge of participating in an “unlawful street protest” in February and an investigation for “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” for his role in organising a recent demonstration.
Adam was suspended, and then effectively expelled, from his teacher training course and is currently studying law at a private institution.
Chua Tian Chang (pictured left), who is the PKR vice-president, is facing sedition charges in one case and is being investigated for sedition in another. The government is appealing against his acquittal on sedition charges in a third case. He also faces charges under Section 509 of the penal code and is under investigation for participating in a number of allegedly unlawful assemblies and for wearing a banned yellow t-shirt bearing the logo of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a group that has been campaigning for electoral reform since 2012.
At least 80,000 people turned out onto the streets of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur on August 29 for for the first stage of a 34-hour Bersih 4 protest, which went off peacefully. The rally organisers said the protest attracted 200,000 people at its peak during the day.
The demonstrators called for Najib’s resignation. They said parliamentary democracy had to be strengthened and demanded that the right to dissent be preserved.
PKR secretary-general Rafizi Ramli is facing criminal charges under three different laws and is the subject of at least four sedition investigations and several investigations under Section 143 of the penal code.
At one stage in March, Rafizi, who is the MP for Pandan, was brought handcuffed and dressed in purple prison garb to the PKR HQ so that police could obtain documents that were freely available elsewhere.
HRW urges the Malaysian government to amend the country’s criminal laws “to conform to international standards for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elaborated on in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
The new Sedition Act, HRW says, goes well beyond the standard definition of sedition, which, it says, has generally been interpreted to require an intention to incite the public to violence against constituted authority or to create a public disturbance or disorder against such authority.
“While the government claims that the restrictions on speech in the Sedition Act are intended to deal with ‘threats against peace, public order and the security of Malaysia’, in both language and application they sweep far too broadly to justify that claim.”
HRW makes a very detailed list of recommendations to Malaysia’s prime minister, the government, the attorney-general, the minister of home affairs, the inspector-general of police, the Malaysian Multimedia and Communications Commission, the minister of foreign affairs, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, the United Nations country team and the UN’s resident co-ordinator.
It also makes recommendations to the United States, Japan, European Union member states, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and the Republic of Korea, whose representatives will be visiting Malaysia in November for the 27th ASEAN summit.
“The US president Barack Obama and leaders of other ASEAN dialogue partner governments should publicly raise concerns about violations of freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia, and call on Prime Minister Najib to commit to a plan of legislative and policy changes to end the criminalisation of these rights,” HRW said.
HRW wrote to the Malaysian minister for home affairs, the attorney-general, the inspector-general of police and the chairman of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission requesting their views on the issues raised in the report, but none of them responded.
Headline photo: © 2015 Zunar for Human Rights Watch.