"The Boa Constrictor": Silencing Human Rights Defenders


The FIDH and the OMCT in the framework of their joint programme, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and Suaram are releasing a joint report on the situation of human rights defenders in Malaysia. It evaluates the situation of the groups and individuals involved in the protection and the promotion of human rights in the country.

Malaysia : "The Boa Constrictor": Silencing Human Rights Defenders

The organisations had been prompted by the growing concerns of Malaysian civil society about the Government’s relentless efforts to stifle all forms of dissent in the country. The roots of authoritarianism go a long way back, to the very structure of power in Malaysia, which traditionally gives a strong role to the Executive, and to Dr Mahathir’s long reign, during which he progressively eliminated all possible checks and balances to his power (though he has announced he will withdraw at the end of 2003). Nevertheless, it appears that the repression against human rights defenders has taken a new turn since the Reformasi movement - a movement which followed Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest in 1998, his trial and subsequent conviction. Within a short space of time, Reformasi came to stand for broader democratic reforms in Malaysia and the rejection of Dr Mahathir’s authoritarian hold of power. September 11 further aggravated the situation, as the Dr Mahathir government has skilfully instrumentalised the "fight against terrorism" to consolidate its efforts to curtail political opposition, notably through an increased use of the Internal Security Act. Paradoxically, and sadly enough, post-September 11, which could have served to promote human rights and further democratic agendas around the world, has on the contrary reinforced authoritarian regimes, depending on the United States’ geopolitical interests. It is in particular the case in Malaysia.

It appears that the repression in Malaysia takes on a dual form :

1.The purposeful use of a wide array of extremely stringent legislation - first and foremost the infamous 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, labour activist and Vice-president of the National Justice Party, both arrested under the ISA on 10 April 2001, are prime examples.

The Internal Security Act (ISA) is a preventive detention law originally enacted in 1960. Over the years it has been repeatedly used to crack down on opposition and human rights defenders. Through successive amendments the judicial safeguards that were designed to protect citizens from any abuse committed by the use of this law have been gradually lifted, increasing the powers of the Executive and also the risk of arbitrariness. The ISA currently gives absolute power to the Minister of Home Affairs to arbitrarily detain anyone, without reference to the courts. The ISA violates the detainee’s rights to access to legal counsel, family visits and an open trial, and is often used to suppress the person’s rights of expression and to demonstration. Detainees under the ISA are reportedly often subjected to various forms of torture, including physical assault, sleep deprivation, round-the-clock interrogation, threats of bodily harm to family members, including detainees’ children; these methods are allegedly often used to extract false signed confessions from the detainees. Furthermore, ISA detainees are often held in secret locations.

Among other restrictive laws used by the authorities to stifle dissent within the country, the report cites the Sedition Act 1948, the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969, the Restricted Residence Act, the Officials Secret Act (OSA) 1972, The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Dangerous Drugs Act (Special Preventive measures) 1985, as well as seemingly unrelated laws, such as the Election Act 1958, the Legal Profession Act 1976, the Societies Act 1966, the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, and the Trade Unions Act.

2. The inculcation of a culture of fear through various means of pressure, intimidation and coercion, which has in turn led to widespread self-censorship. Dr Mahathir thus uses the strategy of a boa constrictor, through a slow strangulation of all spaces of free and critical discourse: the danger, and the efficiency, of such a system is that the asphyxiation is never sudden, nor is it immediately visible. The authorities have over the years thus created an atmosphere, both within the political arena and within civil society, in which fundamental freedoms are considered as privileges and not rights, and in which the possibilities to advocate for human rights are severely curtailed.

The means used by such a ’boa constrictor’ strategy are manifold. They include :
i) Economic retaliation and control
ii) Administrative harassment and licensing control, in particular with respect to NGOs, which often face numerous problems when registering
iii) Personal threats and intimidation
iv) The initiation of criminal proceedings for politically motivated reasons and in particular, the use of contempt power against lawyers
v) Public attacks in the official media
vi) The use of dismissals and transfers- the pressure on civil servants and, conversely, the power of patronage
vii) The use of co-optation: "from foe to friend"
viii) "Salami politics": progressively restraining freedoms.

Such a sophisticated system to silence human rights defenders and to stifle attempts to promote and defend human rights 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.

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.

This elaborate system means that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are heavily restricted in Malaysia. 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, together with the blanket ban on political gatherings since 2001, are selectively used as tools to curtail the activities of the opposition parties as well as of civil society.

The Observatory and Suaram are also concerned about the rise of attacks on human rights defenders by non-state entities, and in particular by some religious groups who, in a context of the radicalisation of Islam, tend to act so as to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of Malaysia as well as by international human rights instruments, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Observatory and Suaram call 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 UN Convention Against Torture.

The Observatory and Suaram further call 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.

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