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Malaysia: Post-Elections Crackdown Contradicts Promises of Reform

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(Kuala Lumpur/Bangkok, 26 July 2013) – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a Bangkok-based regional human rights group representing 47 non-governmental organizations in 16 countries across Asia, concluded its fact-finding and advocacy mission from 22 to 25 July 2013, which assessed the situation of the exercise of freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in the context of 13th General Elections in Malaysia.

“The Malaysian authorities have used repressive legislations, namely the Sedition Act 1948, the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) 2012, the Penal Code as well as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 as tools to suppress legitimate dissent. Such crackdown on activists and opposition leaders seems to be continued in the wake of allegations of electoral irregularities in the post elections phase, which led us to undertake this fact-finding mission”, said Joses Kuan, East Asia Programme Associate of FORUM-ASIA.

The mission team met and interviewed a variety of stakeholders ranging from government institutions including the Legal department of the Police and the newly appointed Minister of Human Rights and Integrity, political parties and associations, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), the Malaysian Bar Council, civil society organizations as well as the individuals currently facing charges in relation to their activities surrounding the GE13.

“We regret that these rights to fundamental freedoms, which are crucial to people’s meaningful and genuine participation in the conduct of public affairs, have been systematically violated in the lead up to and even after the GE13. We deplore the escalating series of human rights violations through legal and judicial harassment, most recently evinced in the filing of new charges under the PAA against 7 individuals for their involvement in the Black 505 Rally in Padang Merbok on 22 June 2013”, said Professor Kyong-Whan Ahn, Professor of Law at the Seoul National University and former Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.

“The purported attempts at reforms, such as the removal of application of permits for assemblies and the public pledges by the Prime Minister to repeal the Sedition Act, do not seem to amount to any substantial safeguards. We register our deep concern at the imprecise nature of those problematic legislations that provide ample latitude for the Malaysian authorities to impose selective and arbitrary interpretations used to stifle dissenting voices. Further, the role and function of the Attorney-General warrants serious attention. Safeguarding the independence of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and ensuring their decisions are subject to judicial review remain imperative”, commented Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a senior human rights advocate from Sri Lanka.

The mission team expressed disappointment that its requests for meetings with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not granted. While it plans to send a follow-up letter to the Ministries and keep the space open for dialogue and further clarifications in the course of compiling a report, the mission team presented the following preliminary findings:

Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

  • The PAA 2012 is fraught with a number of contradictions and ambiguities that have been exploited for the purpose of denying people from holding and participating freely in peaceful assemblies. For instance, while “street protests” are prohibited under the PAA, another provision under the same law defines “assembly” as being stationery or moving.
  • Furthermore, during the meeting with the Police, several questions were put forward by the mission team regarding the 10-day prior notification procedure. The government’s rationale behind the procedure is to take necessary measures for the maintenance of public order and the protection of the rights and freedoms of other persons, by way of “negotiating” with assembly organizers on the time, place and manner, which the mission team opined only serves in reality as an authorization mechanism effectively excluding any possible spontaneous assemblies.
  • It was also observed that the PAA and the Penal Code have been selectively used against human rights defenders as well as opposition leaders in relation to their legitimate exercise of freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

Right to Freedom of Expression

  • The mission team found it disturbing that the Sedition Act continues to be invoked despite the express commitment by the Prime Minister to repeal it. While it was notable that the Office of the Minister of Human Rights and Integrity Datuk Paul Low was established, the mission team remained concerned at the unspecified nature of his mandate.
  • In addition, the Penal Code amendments that were introduced with the passage of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act only provided additional vagueness to the scope and application of the Act, such as the reference to “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy”.
  • The mission team also raised concerns at the seizures of party organs under the charge of violating Section 5 of the PPPA 1984, thereby limiting circulation of publications only to party members. It stressed that access to such information serves an important function and means to engage the public in light of the restrictive mainstream media landscape in Malaysia.

“The final report of this fact-finding mission will be used as an advocacy tool in the Malaysia’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review in October 2013. We urge the government and members of the Parliament to pay due attention to the findings and recommendations that we will present, with a view to seriously improving the current appalling situation of freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in Malaysia, not limiting the debate to mere controversies over the governance of the elections“, stated Nalini Elumalai, Executive Director of SUARAM, FORUM-ASIA’s member in Malaysia.

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