KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 — The Najib administration is pandering to Malay-Muslim hardliners with its surprise ban on a 54-member coalition of human right advocacy groups despite previously associating with it, lawyers have said.
Three lawyers polled also insisted the government cannot arbitrarily outlaw a coalition under the Societies Act 1966, and must deal with the members of the Coalition on Malaysian NGOs in the Universal Periodic Review Process (Comango) on a case-by-case basis even if there were grounds to the argument that some of the groups were not legally registered.
“This is an outrageous action on the part of the government. The government has been working with Comango and it has even invited Comango for meetings,” Malaysian Bar councillor Andrew Khoo told The Malay Mail Online.
Khoo, who co-chairs the Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee, said the government had in talks with Comango up until October last year, when Malaysia went through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations.
“For it now in hindsight to say it is an illegal organisation, is an insult to the freedom of association that is guaranteed under the Constitution,” Khoo added.
Lawyer Eric Paulsen, a co-founder of the Lawyers for Liberty group, claimed that Putrajaya is playing to the gallery of the Malay-Muslim voters, after several hardliner groups have called for action against Comango for allegedly challenging the position of Islam in the country.
“It is unreasonable, irrational and ‘ultra vires’ of the home minister’s power,” he said, using the Latin legal term which translates to “beyond the powers of”.
“The home minister should have heeded the High Court’s rebuke when it overturned a similar ban on Bersih,” Paulsen added, referring to local electoral reform watchdog.
In July 2012, a High Court ruled that Bersih 2.0 is a legal society under Societies Act 1966 although not officially registered, overturning Putrajaya’s order to outlaw it in 2011.
Despite the precedent, the Home Ministry declared Comango illegal yesterday; it claimed only 15 out of its 54 groups under its umbrella were registered, and accused the coalition of promoting sexual rights contrary to Islam.
Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan pointed out that Comango is not a formal coalition and was just a name given to a group of non-government organisations (NGOs) that were involved in the UPR process.
“The issue about some of the NGOs being unofficial or unregistered, should not be a reason to declare the whole coalition illegal. It should not be a ground,” Syahredzan told The Malay Mail Online in a phone interview.
“If there’s a problem with a particular NGO, Putrajaya should declare that NGO illegal, not the whole coalition.”
In a statement by its secretary-general, the Home Ministry claimed that by remaining unregistered, Comango members have failed to fulfil Section 7 of the Act, and has been outlawed under Section 41(1) (b) of the Act.
Syahredzan explained that although there exists Section 5 in the Act which grants the Home Minister the power to declare a society unlawful, Section 41(1) is an interpretation section rather than one which empowers Section 5.
“This power by the Home Ministry to declare a society unlawful does not extend to unregistered society. Nothing in the Act empowers the Minister to make a declaration like that for societies which have not been registered,” Syahredzan said.
“So, unless this was a declaration under Section 5, which appears not to be, then this ‘announcement’ has no legal bite.”
Co-ordinated by Empower and human rights watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), Comango submitted its report to the UPR in March 2013, which touches issues such as the administration of justice; freedom of religion, expression and participation; rights to work, health and education; indigenous and migrants’ rights; and discrimination involving sexual orientation and race.
The coalition is made of 54 NGOs, which also included women rights group Sisters in Islam, Amnesty International Malaysia, Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Tenaganita.
However, Putrajaya has been under pressure from Malay-Muslim NGOs ― which have banded under the name MuslimUPRo ― which claimed that that Comango is trying to challenge the position of Islam in the nation and spreading “liberalism teachings” backed by Western powers.
Spearheading the move was Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), which launched a nationwide campaign against human rights recommendations made by Comango last month.
Called ‘Sejuta Ummah Tolak Comango’ (Community of a million rejecting Comango), the campaign includes a petition, nationwide rallies which have started since early November, and distributing leaflets against Comango at mosques after Friday prayers.
The leaflets slammed Comango for allegedly calling for the freedom to renounce Islam; the protection of LGBT rights; the removal of Malay privileges; the freedom to embrace Shiah teachings; and the right for Catholics to refer to God as “Allah”, among others.
Malaysia had gone through the UPR in October to assess its human rights conditions, during which some 19 countries, including Muslim-majority ones, asked Malaysia to sign one or more of the six core international conventions on human rights which the Southeast Asian nation has yet to ratify.
Malaysia first came under the UPR on February 2009, and consequently accepted 62 of the 103 recommendations issued by the UPR working group.