Human Rights Defenders Under Close Surveillance

Press release

A mission of investigation of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of FIDH and OMCT, visited Malaysia from March 7th to March 22nd to gather information on the situation of groups and individuals involved in the promotion and the defence of human rights in the country.

The delegation held meetings with a wide range of relevant actors: human rights organisations and other NGOs, journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, academics, politicians, students, families of Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees, the Bar Council, the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam)... The delegation also met with the Attorney General of Malaysia.

The Observatory shares the concern of many observers as tension and pressure on human rights defenders are likely to grow in the coming weeks. Indeed, the anniversary of the detentions of pro reform leaders under the Internal Security Act will fall on April 10 2002, and the anniversary of Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction on April 14 2000 ("black 14"). To mark the first anniversary of their detention, six ISA detainees have expressed their intention to go on a hunger strike on April 10 2002.

The delegation found that the authorities have elaborated a sophisticated system to silence human rights defenders and to stifle attempts to promote and defend human rights. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are heavily restricted. The tight control directly or indirectly exerted over the media is a key element in hindering independent human rights advocacy. The mandatory police permit for holding public gatherings of more than five people under the Police Act is selectively used as a tool to curtail the activities of the opposition parties as well as of civil society. Non governmental organisations face obstacles when registering: the discretionary power of the Registrar of Societies and the delay in processing the applications have compelled many of them to register as Companies - this situation weakens the structuring of civil society and exposes the organisations to sanctions by the authorities.

The delegation concluded that the government resorts to a two-fold strategy :

1. The purposeful use of a wide array of extremely stringent legislation - first and foremost the Internal Security Act - to arrest targeted individuals perceived as being too critical of the government, be it because of their activities in political parties or their involvement in organising civil society. The cases of Hishamuddin Rais, filmmaker and newspaper columnist, and Tian Chua, former director of Suaram (a leading human rights organisation) and vice-president of the National Justice Party, both arrested under the ISA on April 10 2001, are prime examples thereof. It further appears that the authorities have instrumentalised the post September 11th "fight against terrorism" to consolidate their efforts to curtail the political opposition through the ISA.
2. The inculcation of a culture of fear through various means of pressure, intimidation and coercion. Systematic interrogations and surveillance, economic pressure (cancellation of contracts with government agencies, professional sanctions...), and negative exposure in the media are among classic instruments used by the authorities. This has been made possible by the domination (consolidated over the years) of the ruling coalition led by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) over practically all aspects of Malaysian institutional, economic, political and judicial life. Such a culture of fear has led to widespread self-censorship.

In effect, the government aims at discouraging and discrediting independent human rights advocacy, thus leaving more room for human rights violations. The lack of effective remedies and strong concerns about the independence of the judiciary aggravate the vulnerability of such groups and individuals.

The Observatory calls on the Malaysian authorities to abolish the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, and to ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention Against Torture.

The Observatory further calls on the Malaysian authorities to guarantee the freedom of action of human rights defenders in accordance with the declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1998.

A full report with recommendations will be released in the next months

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