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(COMMENTARY) Rising Intimidation of Human Rights Defenders in Malaysia

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The month of August 2010 did not start well for Human Rights Defenders in Malaysia. Since the beginning of the month, Human Rights Defenders have been subject to a series of harassment incidents. There is validity in raising concerns regarding these incidents as it may signal a turn towards even more repression against human rights defenders.

Breaking up of protests

On 1 August, co-ordinated protests throughout Malaysia commemorated the 50th anniversary of Internal Security Act (ISA), a 1967 law that allows a preventive detention (or detention without trial or criminal charges) under limited, legally defined circumstances. In practice, however, the ISA has been consistently used against government dissidents and human rights defenders, which is why there have been long-standing calls from civil society to abolish the repressive law.

The main vigil in Kuala Lumpur was broken up by police in riot gear.  The crackdown resulted in 589 people being detained, including 44 children (persons below 18 years old) and 40 women. Several protestors also sustained minor injuries during the arrests.

Another vigil in Penang was infiltrated by a rowdy group of “ISA supporters”, leading to some scuffling and shoving. Ironically, police arrested four protestors instead of the persons who caused disorder at the otherwise peaceful vigil. These arrests prompted another vigil was outside a police station, calling for the release of the four anti-ISA activists being held. A warning from the police forced the vigil to disperse.

Woman human rights defender charged

On 2 August, Lau Shu Shi, of the All Woman’s Action Society Malaysia (AWAM), was summoned to the court and charged after being identified as a participant of the vigil in Penang. However, Lau was charged based on a different incident that occurred on 11 May 2008. In this incident, she was accused of being unruly and raising her voice against a police officer when she lodged a report against them for improperly dispersing an anti-ISA (Internal Security Act) demonstration.

Once charged, Lau was jailed for three hours before being released on bail. From the case of Lau Shu Shi, it was obvious that the police abusively interpreted the police act in order to impose a criminal charge against her, due to her recent protests against ISA.

Arrest of protest organisers

On 9 August, Tah Moon Hui, Rozan Azen, and Fareez were detained ahead of a nationwide campaign against recent subsidy cuts for fuel and goods.

At the time of their arrests, the three were on their way to a car to get materials to be used for the launch of their protest activities. Suspicious police officers asked them to open the car, which the three men refused for the reason that the car did not belong to them. This prompted the police to arrest them for refusal to cooperate with law enforcers. They were later released on bail.

Intimidation of indigenous people’s rights advocate

On 11 August, John Liu of the Penan Support Group (PSG) was summoned by police, after the PSG released a fact-finding report on the sexual exploitation of indigenous Penan women in Sarawak state. Police questioned Liu for about an hour about the contents of the report, which had already been distributed widely to the public, including police officials. Liu considers the incident as an intimidation of their groups since police officials were already given copies of the report when it was launched more than one month earlier.

Consistency needed

The three incidents mentioned above detail how harassment against Malysian human rights defenders has become more frequent recently and looms as a worsening trend in the country. A significant aspect of these cases is that all involve defenders who are working actively on legitimate contemporary human rights issues confronting Malaysian society.

These incidents provide an ironic postscript to the election of Malaysia into the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) earlier this year. Despite promises given to the to the diplomatic community during its campaign for the HRC seat, it is disappointing to note that the government does not seem to demonstrate any determination in fulfilling those promises which should be best seen in local practice. It is likely though that this is a case where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of the country’s international human rights profile, is unaware of the actions of the contry’s police force against legitimate activities of human rights defenders.

As a member of the HRC, Malaysia is obligated to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. The country must show the global community, especially its neighbours in ASEAN, that it deserves the HRC seat. This is best demonstrated by stopping harassment and treats against Human Rights Defenders. Malaysia must begin to see the significant role of Human Rights Defenders as partners or allies in protecting and promoting human rights of the people. The work of human rights defenders contribute by being able to access information and work directly with the people on the ground.

The best way that the Malaysian government can support the work of human rights defenders is to abolish the Internal Security Act, which has been abused by authorities to curtail human rights work. At the same time, government should heed the recommendations of the National Commission on Human Rights (SUHAKAM), as its main organ to protect and promote human rights and work with human rights defenders.