Amnesty International highlights Covid-19’s ugly toll on human rights worldwide, Malaysia included

Myanmar migrants to be deported from Malaysia are seen inside an immigration truck, in Lumut February 23, 2021. ― Reuters pic
Myanmar migrants to be deported from Malaysia are seen inside an immigration truck, in Lumut February 23, 2021. ― Reuters pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 7 — A tumultuous 2020 which saw the world affected by Covid-19 also witnessed a degradation in human rights practices and policies as nations, including Malaysia, enforced oppressive laws under the pretext of safeguarding and ensuring genuine information is disseminated during the pandemic, rights group Amnesty International (AI) revealed today.

AI Malaysia executive director Katrina Maliamauv said measures enforced during the pandemic had laid bare the “devastating” consequences of abuse of power by those in government.

“The Covid-19 pandemic may not define who we are, but it certainly has amplified what we should not be,” she said during a virtual presentation of AI’s Report 2020/21 over teleconference this morning.

An excerpt from the report noted that human rights activism within the government has stalled after Pakatan Harapan (PH) was replaced.

“Investigations into human rights activists and government critics, mass raids against undocumented migrants and the pushback of refugee boats contributed to a deterioration of human rights.

“LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people continued to face discrimination while indigenous communities remained under threat from logging and mining.

“Human rights reforms, including the formation of an independent police oversight commission and the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, stalled under a new administration,” it read.

During the online presentation, AI Malaysia’s lead research consultant Brian Yap gave a breakdown analysis of the country’s performance in six subcategories: freedom of assembly and expression; the plight of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers; treatment of LGBTI people; the welfare of the indigenous people; the impunity of the police force; and Malaysia’s stance on the death penalty.

Freedom of expression and assembly

According to Yap, persecution was widespread throughout 2020 against regular citizens commenting or acting out against the trifecta of sensitive issues, namely those that involve race, religion, and royalty.

He highlighted that groups that came under the scope were journalists, university students, and even healthcare workers who were subject to investigations by the authorities for actions that varied from making statements police deemed as inciting tensions, or for organising and attending demonstrations and pickets. However, he noted that not all were charged in court.

“Even though no charges resulted from some of these cases, we still view this as a form of intimidation,” said Yap.

Among the key incidents highlighted was the investigations initiated against journalists and crew members from Doha-based news agency Al-Jazeera over a documentary it produced depicting alleged abuses of documented and undocumented foreign workers and migrants by authorities here, and of an individual who was sentenced given a prison sentence for making a statement that was deemed insulting to Islam on social media.

Refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers

Next, Yap touched on the poor treatment afforded to the vulnerable communities of foreign workers and asylum seekers here, which he said pointed to growing xenophobia.

One example was the foreigners who answered the government’s insistence that they undergo Covid-19 tests, upon which they ended up cast into crowded detention centres that lacked sufficient facilities, compounding their exposure to the coronavirus and risking their health and lives.

He said such promises being broken by the authorities, in particular those made by the Immigration Department, will prove to be a challenge when the country moves to vaccinate the community with a widening trust deficit.

As an indicator of how dire the situation had become, Yap said issues involving basic necessities like supplying food and water to non-Malaysians stuck at home under the enforced movement control orders (EMCO) had also proved to be a point of dispute.

“There were disputes over who would provide food for non-Malaysians and that was put back and forth, simple access to food was an issue at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“Although subsequently I believe these issues were addressed, but that shows and is a reflection of how severe the impact of the Covid-19 response is on migrants,” he said.

Yap said asylum seekers, such as the Rohingya, who were either denied entry into the country altogether or were treated as immigration offenders, which he said was unacceptable and underserved.

Consequently, Yap said the government charged these refugees with immigration offences.

“Prisoners as well, as a group, were disappointingly neglected where there were multiple outbreaks in many prisons across the country.

“Although there were thoughts the government would propose some kind of early release plan to reduce the population, this plan has been very slow and definitely ineffective in reducing the population and the spread of Covid-19 among prisoners,” he said.

Treatment towards LGBTI in Malaysia

There was not much change in terms of policies and treatment towards the LGBTI community, said Yap, who still find themselves the subject to many laws and oppressive attitudes.

He said religious authorities targeting LGBTI individuals continued throughout 2020 and has even spilt over into this year, with the manhunt of cosmetics entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman for skipping a Shariah Court hearing date.

The hardline stance recently taken by the Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Zulkifli Mohamad, Yap said, only adds on to the abuses and discrimination towards the community.

“Yesterday, the Minister of Islamic Affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department said the government will continue its policy targeting LGBTI persons, and most notably we have the case of Nur Sajat, which has highlighted and made it clear to the public just how this vendetta is.

“This shows a reflection of the government’s attitude towards LGBTI people that has not changed in these few years,” he said.

However, Yap did point out one recent victory for the LGBTI community when the Federal Court deemed a Selangor state religious law criminalising unnatural sex was unconstitutional as it duplicated a similar law under the Federal Penal Code.

Indigenous people

Yap said indigenous people suffered all kinds of threats and abuses over the last year, ranging from loss of land to mining and development projects, being unable to communicate with those even in the neighbouring village due to poor cellular infrastructure, which in turn saw students missing out on virtual lessons implemented during the pandemic.

“Something that we many of us take for granted, but communicating between villages proved to be one of the main challenges, with network disrupted and that many of these villages do not even have access to cellular communication.

“They cannot leave their villages because of the MCO, so when it involves sharing information from one village to another, they are tremendously disadvantaged during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

He said another worrying issue is the pending answer from the Selangor state government over its decision to de-gazette forest reserve land in Hulu Langat to make way for urban development.

“De-gazetting will bring impacts not only environmentally, but because it is a peat forest, it will also have an impact on at least four indigenous Orang Asli villages that live around and depend on the forest for culture, economic activity, food, and so many other things,” he warned.

Impunity and the death penalty

Also observed in this year’s report is the continuation of impunity against the police, with deaths in custody still occurring and subsequent investigations into these incidents proving to be ineffective or lopsided.

Yap also pointed out how police have appeared to be selective over who they decide to enforce MCO violations and those who even faced action in court after questioning the police’s ethics.

He also lamented how the already disputable Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill 2019 was dropped by the current government for a more weaker Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) meant at enforcing oversight and accountability in the police force, calling it a regression.

“Many of us found it to be a step backwards. That’s where we are, with no progress, and probably regression in this area,” he said.

And concerning the death penalty, Yap said it was comforting to see the country vote in support of the UN-backed worldwide moratorium on executions, but with much still to do policy-wise.

He added that following the change of government, work to draft legal frameworks towards abolishing the mandatory death penalty from the Penal Code seemed to have stalled.

“While executions here have also been on moratorium which thankfully remains in place, people are still being sentenced to death.

“This is not a time to say that ‘at least people are not being executed’ because people are continually being sentenced (to death), and AI will continue to campaign for the full abolition,” he said.

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