WORLD REPORT 2001 - Malaysia

The trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, culminating in his conviction for sodomy in August, provided the backdrop for the Malaysian government's ongoing repression of perceived political opponents. While continuing to target liberal activists, the government stepped up its attacks on the fundamentalist Islamic party PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), following elections in November 1999. Human rights activists, lawyers, politicians, and publishers affiliated with the opposition were prosecuted under expansively-worded laws restricting freedom of expression. Police broke up peaceful rallies, arrested protestors, and beat some detainees in custody. Anwar's conviction cast further doubt on the independence of Malaysia's judicial system. Refugees and migrants faced harsh conditions in immigration detention camps, and Malaysia continued to return refugees to countries where they faced persecution. The appointment of a Human Rights Commission held out the promise of greater government attention to human rights, but the extent of its power and effectiveness remained in question.

Human Rights Developments


The second trial of Anwar Ibrahim concluded in August. He was sentenced to nine years in prison on sodomy charges, to run consecutively with the six-year sentence for corruption imposed on him in 1999, which was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in April 2000. Anwar's adopted brother, Sukma Dermawan, was also convicted and sentenced to six years in prison and to receive four lashes with a rattan cane.

Anwar's prosecution was widely viewed inside and outside Malaysia as a case of political revenge by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad against his most prominent critic. His two trials were marred by heavy-handed tactics and irregularities. Key witnesses recanted their confessions and alleged that they were extracted through police coercion and physical abuse. The judge admitted into evidence a contested confession that interrogators had obtained from co-defendant Sukma Dermawan while he was in incommunicado detention without access to counsel, and that he subsequently retracted. Prime Minister Mahathir repeatedly stated publicly that Anwar was guilty before the court delivered its verdict. Defense attorneys Zainur Zakaria and Karpal Singh were prosecuted for statements made in court in the course of Anwar's defense. Finally, the court permitted the prosecution to twice change the dates of the alleged crime.

In March, former Inspector-General of Police Abdul Rahim Noor was convicted of "causing hurt" to Anwar for beating him in custody after his arrest. The charge was much reduced from the original, and Noor was sentenced to a fine and two months in prison. At this writing, he remained free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal.

Following November 1999 elections, the government retaliated against its opponents by charging them under broadly worded laws. Although Malaysia's ruling coalition, dominated by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), maintained its two-thirds majority in parliament, it lost significant ethnic Malay support as a result of Anwar's controversial prosecutions. PAS won control of the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu, giving it leadership of two of Malaysia's fourteen states.

Anwar's principal counsel, Karpal Singh, was one of four individuals charged in January with violating the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law that criminalizes any speech deemed to have a "seditious tendency," regardless of the speaker's intent and the statement's veracity. Singh, the deputy chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), was arrested on January 12, 2000 for telling the trial court in September 1999 that Anwar might have been poisoned in custody and that he suspected that "people in high places" were responsible. As of October, his trial had not begun. The charge against Singh ran counter to international standards and Malaysian common law, which grants lawyers absolute privilege for all statements made during legal proceedings. Marina Yusoff, former vice president of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional or Keadilan), also faced sedition charges for allegedly "provoking racial discord." In a speech on September 29, 1999, Yusoff allegedly told a mostly ethnic Chinese Malaysian audience not to vote for UMNO because it had started the massacres of ethnic Chinese during the race riots of May 13, 1969. Her trial was ongoing in October. Zulkifli Sulong, editor of the popular PAS newspaper Harakah, and Chia Lim Thye, who held the permit for the newspaper's printing company, were charged with sedition for publishing an article allegedly written by Chandra Muzaffar, Keadilan's deputy president. The article alleged a government conspiracy against Anwar. Chia pleaded guilty and received a fine in May. Zulkifli pleaded not guilty, and his trial was ongoing at the time of this writing.

The Home Ministry used the Printing Presses and Publications Act to intimidate the press and restrict media associated with the opposition. On December 24, 1999, the ministry accused Harakah of breaching the conditions of its license by selling the paper to non-PAS members. On March 1, it restricted Harakah to two issues per month, down from twice weekly, and banned it from newsstands. The minister for energy, communications, and multimedia also stated that Harakah's online edition would be limited to two issues per month, although the ministry had repeatedly said that the government would not interfere with the Internet.

On March 27, the Home Ministry refused to renew the publishing permit of Detik

magazine, a privately financed publication on domestic politics which criticized the government. Among other things, the government alleged that the magazine had failed to print the publisher's address and had not obtained the ministry's consent to the editor's appointment. The ministry also banned Al Wasilah, a monthly youth magazine affiliated with Detik, in August. In September, it suspended the weekly tabloid, Ekslusif, for "imbalanced [sic] reporting and non-compliance with publication rules and regulations.

Police continued to use force to break up peaceful opposition demonstrations. On March 11, around 200 people gathered at the National Mosque to protest the government's decision to reduce the frequency of Harakah's publication. Seven people, including prominent human rights lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah, opposition supporters, and journalists, were arrested for illegal assembly. On March 25, the government banned public rallies in the capital for an indefinite period. The ban applied to all outdoor gatherings in Kuala Lumpur of more than four people. On April 9, police shut down Keadilan's first anniversary celebration on the grounds that it had no permit and called in Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife and head of Keadilan, for questioning.

In advance of protests planned to mark the anniversary of Anwar's corruption conviction on April 14, police arrested three opposition leaders and ordered four others to turn themselves in. Despite the arrests, as well as police roadblocks around Kuala Lumpur and a heavy police presence, several hundred people gathered at the National Mosque and were met by tear gas, water cannons, and police in riot gear using batons, bamboo canes, and dogs. Forty-eight people were arrested for illegal assembly. A judge ordered forty-six to be held for over a week without charges. Several detainees reported being beaten in custody by police. Police also arrested Cheah Kah Peng, lawyer for Keadilan vice-president Tian Chua, one of those charged with illegal assembly, when he tried to gain access to his client at a local police station.

On August 4, the day originally scheduled for Anwar's sodomy trial verdict, several hundred people gathered outside the courthouse; seven were arrested for illegal assembly. When the verdict was finally announced on August 8, around 700 people demonstrated peacefully; approximately twelve, including Tian Chua, were arrested. Several reported being punched, kicked, and partially choked by police officers during arrest and at the police station. Since September 1998, police had consistently refused to grant opposition parties permits for public rallies.

Opposition supporters also faced retaliation from the ruling party at the state level. In March, the Malacca state government blacklisted doctors, lawyers, architects, contractors, and other professionals who were opposition party members. The government transferred civil servants supportive of the opposition out of the state or to other agencies, forbade its employees from visiting the two states controlled by PAS, and withdrew some state funds from two banks with employees who had campaigned for the opposition. The banks responded by promising to take action against those employees. One, Bank Islam, gave the government a list of employees who openly supported the opposition, promised disciplinary action against them, and dismissed those who had stood as opposition candidates in the November elections. Chief Minister Mohamed Ali Rustam explained that the measures were intended "to serve as a warning to opposition party supporters that they have no place in Malacca."

Thirteen members were appointed to a national Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) in April, with former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam named as chair. The commission began receiving complaints in April, primarily of police abuse. It met with representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in May and with members of the police in June. In late July, Musa Hitam acknowledged the public's right to peaceful assembly and stated that persons should be allowed to gather at the Kuala Lumpur High Court to hear the Anwar verdict. The Malaysian Home Ministry and the UMNO Youth deputy chief disagreed publicly with this statement. Wearing armbands, commission members observed the public gathering on August 8, the day of the Anwar verdict. Malaysian NGOs criticized the limited scope of rights falling under the commission's jurisdiction and its lack of powers.

In July the Malaysian High Court dismissed one of the four defamation suits brought by corporations against Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. It ordered Cumaraswamy to bear the litigation costs, however, which were US $110,000 at the time and rising. The three other cases were still pending at the time of this writing. The corporations wereseeking over US $100 million in damages for statements in Cumaraswamy's 1995 interview with International Commercial Litigation magazine in which he referred to allegations of corporate interference in the Malaysian judiciary. Malaysian courts have long refused to recognize the immunity granted him in his capacity as U.N. Special Rapporteur. In April, the Malaysian government attempted unsuccessfully to block Cumaraswamy's reappointment at the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The trial of Irene Fernandez, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based advocacy organization Tenaganita (Women's Force), entered its fifth year, making it the longest trial in Malaysian history. Fernandez faces the possibility of three years in prison on charges of malicious publishing for her July 1995 memorandum on abuses in immigration detention camps. The government maintained that the report was inaccurate. Beginning in January, former detainees from Bangladesh, after initially being denied visas by the Malaysian government, testified in court that they had been severely beaten, subjected to gross sexual abuse, and kept in crowded, mosquito-infested rooms with foul toilets.

Malaysia continued its policy of detaining and expelling persons recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and continued to deny UNHCR permission to visit immigration detention camps where refugees were detained. In October 1999, Mohammed Sayed, a refugee from Burma, was arrested after he led a demonstration in front of the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Scheduled for expulsion to Thailand several times, he was held in an immigration detention camp until June when, following domestic and international protest, he was resettled in Australia.

Defending Human Rights

Malaysia's human rights groups continued to operate despite government pressure. In April, Anwar's daughter, Nurul Izzah, met with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson about her father's imprisonment and addressed the 56th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Three Malaysian human rights organizations, Voice of the Malaysian People (Suara Rakyat Malaysia, SUARAM), Aliran, and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) met in May with the new Human Rights Commission and delivered a memorandum signed by thirty-one NGOs. On August 1, SUARAM organized a gathering of NGOs to protest the fortieth anniversary of the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The Malaysian Bar Council in March adopted a motion urging Malaysia's chief prosecutor to withdraw the charges against Karpal Singh and to respect the rights of an independent bar. In June, the High Court enjoined the Bar Council from convening a special meeting to discuss allegations of impropriety against the chief justice. In July, the Court of Appeal affirmed a November 1999 decision that if the Bar Council held a special meeting on the independence of the judiciary, it would contravene the Sedition Act, erode public confidence in the judiciary, and be in contempt of court. In both instances, the court ordered that the Bar Council meet the litigation costs.

The Role of the International Community

Anwar's sodomy conviction evoked widespread condemnation.

Asia and the Pacific

Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew called Mahathir's handling of the Anwar case "an unmitigated disaster," referring to the use of the ISA to detain Anwar and Mahathir's weak response to Anwar's being beaten in custody. (Lee later denied that he intended to criticize Mahathir.) Australian Prime Minister John Howard questioned the independence of Malaysia's judiciary and stated that the sodomy conviction was politically motivated. New Zealand's Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Phil Goff expressed concern about the fairness of the trial, including questionable evidentiary rulings, restrictions on the defense, and the judiciary's independence from the executive.

United States and Canada

The U.S. in April criticized Malaysia's crackdown on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly and called on the government to respect its citizen's civil and political rights. In May, the U.S. expressed concern about the rejection of Anwar's appeal of his corruption convictions and urged the judicial system to address due process concerns. In August, the U.S. State Department stated that the U.S. was "outraged" by Anwar's conviction and that the cooperative relationship between the U.S. and Malaysia had been impeded by the latter's poor human rights record. Canada also strongly condemned the trial and the sentence, stating that they reflected poorly on the impartiality of Malaysia's judicial system.


The European Parliament sent a five-member delegation to Malaysia in May. The delegation praised the creation of the national Human Rights Commission but expressed concern about the fairness of Anwar's trials and the independence of the judiciary and the press. Following Anwar's conviction in August, the European Union issued a statement of concern about the verdict and expressed serious doubts about the fairness of the trial.

United Nations and the World Bank

On April 10, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson voiced concern about a possible crackdown against opposition leaders in the run-up to the anniversary of Anwar's conviction on April 14, stated that her office would actively monitor the situation, and called on all parties to respect the right to peaceful expression. In August World Bank President James Wolfensohn expressed concern about Anwar's conviction.


Relevan Human Rights Watch


Living in Limbo: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia, 8/00