Despite commitment to reforms in Malaysia, fundamental freedoms still being restricted

Following the 9th May 2018 elections and change of government, there has been continued public commitments by government officials, to undertake human rights reforms. On 28th September 2018, at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly’s general debate, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reiterated the government’s commitment to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights. On 22nd September, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), a police oversight body, which was one of the pledges in their election manifesto. Nevertheless, restrictions to fundamental freedoms in Malaysia continue to be documented over the last few months.

Peaceful assembly

Students arrested at sit-in protest

On 8th September 2018, two student activists were arrested over a sit-in protest at the Education Ministry. The students were part of a group demanding that the Education Minister Maszlee Malik reject his appointment as the international Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) President.

The IIUM students Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi and Siti Nurizzah Tazali were arrested at approximately 2:00 in the morning outside the Ministry gates. and charged under Section 447 of the Penal Code, for alleged “criminal trespassing". They were released on bail at 6:00 AM.

Asheeq Ali, a law student from the National University of Malaysia (UKM) said that the Minister must keep his word and ensure that public universities remain free from political influence. Asheeq said that the Minister had “made promises and pledges in the past that the new administration would protect the autonomy of universities and would not place any political actors in learning institutions".

Eight student activists arrested at Malaysia Day rally

In the morning of 16th September 2018, eight student activists were arrested during a Malaysia Day protest rally in Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah. They were taken in for questioning at the Karamunsing police station and were released that evening after police completed recording their statements.

The rally was organised by several student groups, including Gagasan Mahasiswa Merdeka and was joined by almost a hundred participants. During the rally, the protesters made ten demands of the state and federal governments, which includes equal education rights, better public transport service and job opportunities for Sabahans.

One of those detained, Mukmin Nantang, claimed that the participants were about to disperse after being warned by authorities, but were then physically attacked by the authorities. National human rights group SUARAM condemned the arrests stating:

"The arrest of the eight today marks the 10th youth and student activists arrested within the period of a week…the decision to disperse the peaceful assembly through the use of force by the state government of Sabah and the Royal Malaysian Police is a violation of Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. As an administration which has promised to uphold reform and protect human rights, the Pakatan Harapan administration must investigate …this matter and dismiss or suspend officers who have ordered the dispersal and arrest of peaceful protesters.”
Indigenous peoples blockade demolished

On 26th August 2018, the authorities dismantled blockades set up by the indigenous Orang Asli community in Gua Musang, in Kelantan state. The operation was reportedly carried out by over 300 members from federal and Kelantan enforcement agencies, including the police, Federal Reserve Unit and Forestry Department.

Latheefa Koya, the Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty, said the confrontation between the Orang Asli in Gua Musang and the Kelantan government has been ongoing since 2016 over encroachment by loggers and durian plantation farmers on land claimed by the Orang Asli as their native customary land. She said:

“The rights of the Orang Asli in Gua Musang have been systematically denied by the Kelantan government that preferred to grant access to so-called ‘permanent forest reserves’ to loggers and durian plantation farmers rather than protecting these forests inhabited and claimed by the Orang Asli, thus leading to rapid deforestation and massive destruction to the environment and their way of life.”

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor previously, on 29th July 2018, the plantation company had parked several vehicles including four-wheel drives and a timber hauler in front of their blockade, hence blocking cars and volunteers from reaching the villages.

Indigenous activists have faced sustained intimidation and threats of physical violence in their efforts to protect their land. According to the community, the past attempts by the company to remove the blockade have included bringing firearms to the site and threats of physical violence.

Expression

Judicial harassment of human rights activist 

On 14th September 2018, human rights activist and lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said police have summoned her to record her statement following comments she made at a forum on Malaysian history recently. A police report was lodged against Fadiah for allegedly called for the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to be recognised and she is being investigated under Section 505 of the Penal Code for making statements “that could cause public mischief". Fadiah has refuted this claiming that her words were twisted.

As documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, in July 2018, Fadiah was investigated under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act and section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act regarding an article she had written questioning the role of the monarchy. 

Sedition probe for allegedly insulting Prime Minister

On 2nd October 2018, police arrested Azman Noor Adam under Section 4 (1) of the draconian Sedition Act for uploading on social media a photograph which allegedly insulted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He was then remanded for four days by the police. Azman is the younger brother of opposition politician Lokman Noor Adam.

His arrest was criticised by the Anti-Sedition Act Movement (GHAH). The organisation said:

“The arrest of Azman Noor Adam, the brother of outspoken Umno Supreme Council member Lokman Noor Adam, should not have happened in the “new Malaysia”….the arrest was no different from the action taken by the previous government against artist Fahmi Reza over his clown caricature of Najib Razak.”

The Sedition Act was systematically used by the previous regime to investigate, arrest or charge government critics including human rights activists, journalists, academics, lawyers and opposition politicians. The new government has committed to repeal it but no time frame has been set for its repeal.

Senate rejects repeal of Anti-Fake News law

On 12th September 2018, the Malaysian Senate rejected the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018. The repeal of the bill, which was a commitment made by the new Pakatan Harapan government, was tabled on 8th August and passed by the lower house on 16th August.

When the law was passed in March 2018, human rights groups raised concerns that the bill was yet another attempt to stifle debate and criminalise those who speak out against corruption and human rights violations in the country.

Senator Khairul Azwan Harun from the opposition UMNO party said opposition Senators voted against the repeal because they believed the law prohibiting misinformation could be improved. This means the Act will be sent back to the lower house for MPs to review and can only be tabled again after a year.

CIVICUS and Article 19 criticised the Senate decision saying that:

“Our organisations believe that the Senate’s rejection of the bill is a regressive step that runs counter to the government’s manifesto promises—endorsed in the recent elections—to reform legislation that restricts human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.”
Official Secrets Act to stay

On 27th August 2018, the government announced that it would not repeal the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA) as previously promised in their election manifesto. The OSA allows the government to classify any document as secret and jail those who release such information for up to seven years. The law has long been considered a tool to enable the government to keep its affairs opaque - or worse, to cover up its scandals.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Liew Vui Keong, said the following day, that the government will review the OSA as well as propose a Freedom of Information Act. He said the process will take up to a year before a final decision can be made on the matter.

Association

LGBTI persons at risk

There continues to be discrimination, threats and violence towards the LGBTI community despite the change of government on 9th May 2018. On 12th August 2018, the Terengganu Shari’a High Court sentenced two Malaysian women, aged 22 and 32, for attempting to have sex, to a fine of RM 3,300 (USD 800) and to be caned six times.

On 3rd September, the caning was carried out in a courtroom and was witnessed by up to 100 people. While women in Malaysia have been caned for sexual offences in the past, such as adultery, rights activists say this is the first time two women have been caned for attempting to have sex.

Thilaga Sulathireh, an activist from the Malaysian rights group Justice for Sisters said:

“The punishment was shocking and it was a spectacle...this case shows a regression for human rights…not only for LGBT people but all persons because corporal punishment affects all people.”

Human rights group SUARAM called for the review of outdated laws and for equality of treatment for all consensual sex between adults. They also urged all progressive Malaysians, political parties and organisations to stand up for the rights of all LGBTI people.