Human Rights Watch report finds reforms still slow in Malaysia under Pakatan

HRW in its report pointed out that the government has not met its promise to abolish the Sedition Act as the law continues to be used, particularly against those voicing criticism of Malaysia’s royalty. — Reuters pic
HRW in its report pointed out that the government has not met its promise to abolish the Sedition Act as the law continues to be used, particularly against those voicing criticism of Malaysia’s royalty. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 15 — The latest global rights report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) showed that Malaysia remained slow in its reform agenda last year despite getting a new government in the form of Pakatan Harapan (PH).

The delay in abolishing the Sedition Act and the use of other draconian security laws, continued gender discrimination and child marriages, asylum seekers being treated as illegal immigrants and crackdowns on Shiah Muslims clearly showed the government’s failure in improving human rights, the report said.

HRW in its report pointed out that the government has not met its promise to abolish the Sedition Act as the law continues to be used, particularly against those voicing criticism of Malaysia’s royalty.

The report said those speaking critically about race and religion have faced criminal investigations, including Klang MP Charles Santiago, who was one of five individuals called in for questioning in September after controversial Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik filed a criminal defamation complaint against them.

“No judicial review is permitted for these measures. The new government has committed to ‘abolish draconian provisions’ in these laws, but has yet to do so,” said HRW in its 653-page report on Malaysia.

The HRW report also pointed out that while the government in 2018 announced its intention to abolish the death penalty and impose a moratorium on executions, in March last year, however, it announced that it would maintain the death penalty but would merely end the mandatory application of the punishment.

“Malaysia currently permits the death penalty for various crimes and makes the sentence mandatory for 11 offences. The government has yet to introduce legislation to abolish even the mandatory death penalty,” it said. 

HRW also highlighted the restrictions on the rights of Malaysian Muslims to follow other Islamic schools of jurisprudence other than the officially sanctioned Sunni denomination..

“In September, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) instructed mosques in the state to deliver a sermon describing Shiah Muslim beliefs and practices as ‘deviant’, ‘heinous’, ‘nonsense’, and ‘nauseating’.

“On September 6, Jais arrested 23 Shiah, including children, for practising their religion, while another eight Shiah were arrested at a private event in Johor on Sept 9,” the report said, referring to a crackdown on Shiah Muslims as they marked the annual Ashura mourning ceremonies.

HRW also noted that the present leadership has been more vocal in speaking out against human rights abuses in other countries, although it said this has been selective.

It said while the government came out strongly against Myanmar’s mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims, the same was not the case in China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Child marriage 

The report also highlighted that Malaysia permits child marriage under both civil and Islamic law.

“Girls aged 16 and older can marry with permission of their state’s chief minister. For Muslims, most state Islamic laws set a minimum age of 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but permit marriages below those ages, with no apparent minimum, with the permission of a Sharia court.

“While the government announced in August that it has put in place stricter guidelines for the granting of permission for children to marry, it has not ended the practice,” the report said. 

Police brutality and discrimination against LGBT

Meanwhile, the report also said cases of suspects abused while under police custody continue to be a serious problem as there is lack of accountability for such offenses. 

“The standard of care for those in detention is also problematic, with suspects and prisoners dying from treatable illnesses.

“In July, the government submitted a long-awaited bill to create an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission. While tabling the bill is a positive step forward towards police accountability, some of the bill’s provisions raised concerns about the independence and authority of the proposed commission,” it said. 

The report also highlighted that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community remains pervasive in Malaysia.

“Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping. 

“Numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people”

The report pointed out that government officials including Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have made statements expressing lack of support for the LGBT community.

“In June 2019, Mahathir said that the discussion of LGBT rights was being promoted by “Western countries” and was “unsuitable” for Malaysia,” the report added.

The report also highlighted how three transgender women were killed between November 2018 and January 2019 but no one has been convicted in any of the killings.

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