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Tough security laws unleashed on Malaysians during International Human Rights Day celebrations

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Malaysia shocked the world by cracking down on human rights defenders and civil society on and after InternationalHuman Rights Day on 10 December. Despite being a UN Human Rights Council member, Malaysia has breached two fundamental freedoms: right to freedom of expression and assembly.

(Penang, 16 December 2007) Malaysia shocked the world by cracking down on human rights defenders and civil society on and after International Human Rights Day on 10 December. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the country greeted celebrations of the day by breaching two fundamental freedoms: right to freedom of expression and assembly.

On 13 December the government unleashed the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) on five organisers of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), which led a peaceful rally calling for ethnic minority rights held in Kuala Lumpur last month.

The Act, formerly used to deal with communist “terrorists” during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), continues to be used against political dissidents, and allows for prolonged detention without charge. The five, including four lawyers, were sent to the Kamunting Detention Camp, 300km north of the capital city, for a period of two years although they had not been charged in any court of law for any crime.
Earlier, 31 Malaysian Indians who took part in a protest related to HINDRAF outside Batu Caves temple, a tourist destination north of Kuala Lumpur, faced an attempted murder charge against a policeman who suffered head injuries during the rally.

Malaysiakini reported that HINDRAF had mustered at least 30,000 people to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to highlight various issues including a lack of economic opportunities and the destruction of Hindu temples. Police used tear gas, water cannon and baton charges to break up the protests. The group has also been alleged by the government to have had “terrorist” links.

Local and international human rights groups have long called for the repeal of Malaysia’s ISA from being used to violate human rights. However, the government has rejected all pleas by the international community and civil society, and vowed more arrests under the ISA in order to maintain security ahead of possible elections early next year.

Lawyers arrested, blogger quizzed

Meanwhile, on 9 December police arrested lawyers who walked for justice, while blogger Jeff Ooi of “Screenshots” was quizzed over his comments  about the HINDRAF rally that aired on Al-jazeera. The lawyers and activists from the Human Rights walk were charged in court and the blogger, who is a member of the Opposition Democratic Action Party, spent over an hour at the Police Headquarters in Bukit Aman.

On 10 December, Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Suaram, FORUM-ASIA’s member in Malaysia, and  22 others were arrested for gathering at the Parliament to hand in a memorandum on electoral reforms. The memorandum demanded a repeal of the extension of the services of the Election Commission chief whose term has been "marred with recurring electoral frauds and manipulations”. The group represented Bersih, a coalition of NGOS and political parties calling for free and fair elections.

In a press statement issued on the same day, Suaram strongly condemned the government and the police for their ongoing crackdown and attacks on freedom of assembly, a fundamental right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

Echoing Suaram’s statement, FORUM-ASIA executive director Anselmo Lee issued an open letter saying that instances wherein the Prime Minister serves as the Minister of Internal Security have clearly breached international human rights standards which guarantee the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

He expressed deep shock over the currently rising trend of arrests and attempts to create a backlash against peaceful demonstrators, including the sweeping statement by Abdullah Ahmad and Cabinet Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz that the demonstrations organised by HINDRAF could be linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is waging a war of independence in Sri Lanka.

“This will create a culture of fear for Malaysians wanting to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly,” said Lee in Bangkok.

The open letter also reminded Malaysia of the recently signed ASEAN Charter which includes the promotion and protection of human rights as a core principle.

“As a founding member of ASEAN, Malaysia’s actions only act to further discredit this intergovernmental organisation and undermine the ‘community of caring nations’ that the Charter is attempting to establish”, Lee added, in the open letter.

FORUM-ASIA demanded that the Malaysian government bring an end to the series of violations against freedom of assembly and arrest of demonstrators.

“As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, [Malaysia ought] to be ashamed of its policies designed to silence human rights defenders working to promote and protect human rights in the country and individuals exercising their rights”, Lee said further.

The open letter was also copied to the relevant UN representative/Special Procedures.