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Malaysia's rights record under fire

Ahead of a visit to the UN in Geneva, critics say the situation in Malaysia is getting worse.

Last Modified: 23 Oct 2013 11:33
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Many Malaysians believe there is serious corruption within some elements of the security forces [Reuters]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - After a 30-minute briefing at Malaysia's police headquarters where he was measured for a bullet proof vest, although not, apparently, a helmet, opposition politician and human rights lawyer N Surendran is ready to join officers at their next confrontation with armed criminals after an invitation from the country's top policeman to get a "feel" for what happens.

The offer, made via Twitter over the weekend was criticised, as was Surendran for accepting, but the Member of Parliament says it's an opportunity to highlight the potential dangers to Malaysians from a force seen by some as the country's most corrupt institution.

"It's not about the risks to me," Surendran said as he arrived for the briefing last week. "It's about the risks being faced by everyone. We cannot have trigger happy enforcement officers. They keep saying they're shooting criminals, but how do they know that? They are suspects and, what do you do with suspects? You try your best to arrest them. "

Surendran doesn't know when he'll join the patrol - he's been told it could happen any time of the day or night - but he may well find himself face-to-face with a potential criminal at the same time as Malaysia's diplomats sit down at the United Nations in Geneva for what is expected to be a frank discussion on the country's human rights situation.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, in its submission to the UN, highlighted its moves to repeal anti-democratic laws, but activists are likely to focus on a spate of recent decisions that have cast doubt on the government's human rights record.

An 'astounding turn'

Last month, just a year after detention without trial was ended, the government pushed through amendments to the long-forgotten Prevention of Crime Act 1959, in a move that effectively reintroduced the measure and also limited the scope for judicial review.

An apparent surge in serious crime and concerns about public security were used to justify the decision, the same reasoning behind a police crackdown in which more than 400,000 people have been "screened" since the middle of August and nearly 16,000 detained, according to official figures. More recently, the Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, told a closed-door meeting that he supported a "shoot first" policy in dealing with criminals.

Malaysia's human rights record has taken an astounding turn for the worse in the past six months 

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch 

"Malaysia's human rights record has taken an astounding turn for the worse in the past six months that should not go unnoticed by countries at the Human Rights Council," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch wrote in a statement released ahead of the UN review set for October 24. "The UPR session is a moment for concerned governments to tell Malaysian policymakers to reverse course."

The country's own human rights commission, which will send a delegation to Geneva, has already warned that the latest law enforcement legislation will "open the country to scrutiny and criticism by the international community," describing the provisions as "retrogressive" and "inconsistent" with accepted international principles on human rights.

Malaysia is a signatory to just three of the United Nations' core conventions on human rights; those relating to the rights of the child, the disabled and women. At the 2009 review, Malaysia's first, the government accepted 62 of the 103 recommendations made by the UN body and "noted" 22 others.

This year's submission, compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed the government's "strong commitment to the rule of law, to upholding respect for human rights, and widening the democratic space," noting a series of initiatives to tackle poverty, build more affordable homes and improve access to education and healthcare. It highlights too, the July 2012 decision to repeal the Internal Security Act, which was used frequently against government critics, and assures the UN that its replacement, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act was consistent with international human rights standards.

"The UPR process is a positive and constructive mechanism, which allows for a substantive exchange of views aimed at improving the human rights situation in the country," the Ministry said in a statement. Its delegation will be led by Ho May Yong, a senior civil servant.

'Selling point'

NGO representatives, who'll also participate in the process, have vowed to lobby permanent missions in Geneva to highlight their concerns not only about the threats to civil and political liberties but also religious freedom – Shias have been the focus of a recent crackdown – and, in a country where sodomy remains a crime, gay rights.

The review comes after a fiercely fought, and controversial, May election that was won by the race-based Barisan Nasional coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation. The coalition, which has been in power in one form or another since 1957, not only won fewer seats than in 2008, but also lost the popular vote. The result raised questions about the direction of Najib's reform agenda in the run-up to party polls that took place this month.

"The ruling party has had to deal with three sets of critics - NGOs, the opposition and hardliners within its own ranks who think the party didn't do well in the election because they (the leaders) were too soft,' said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Centre, Malaysia's only polling organisation. "At the same time, the Prime Minister still wants to show this moderate face abroad. Now that the party elections have been concluded we can assess whether he's genuine about his reforms. He still has an opportunity to turn over a new leaf."

Still, recent experience has left many members of the country's civil society sceptical.

In the wake of the May election, a student was detained and later charged under the Sedition Act after calling for street protests, the country's poet laureate was questioned by police for a poetry reading that took place against the back drop of a pre-independence flag associated with the left, opposition politicians were charged over attempts to organise rallies highlighting their concerns about the election result and, just this week, human rights activist Lena Hendry was in court under the Censorship Act after she organised the screening of the award-winning documentary on Sri Lanka, "No Fire Zone."

"The government doesn't walk the talk," Nalini Elumalai, Executive Director of human rights group Suaram, itself subjected to investigation by the Registrar of Societies over the past year, told Al Jazeera. "They call themselves moderate, portray themselves as the guardian of human rights, and say that there are no problems in Malaysia and that we are a peaceful country. It's just a 'selling point'."

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Al Jazeera
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