Pursuit of power leads to human rights violations, Amnesty International says

Instead of respecting human rights, Malaysia govt uses Covid-19 measures and other laws to silence critical speech

by ASILA JALIL / graphic by MZUKRI MOHAMAD

THE power struggle between political leaders in Malaysia coupled with poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the government have led to public protest in 2021 when the country should have recuperated from the brutal effects of the pandemic, Amnesty International said in a report yesterday.

“Political leaders and corporate titans across the world put profit and power ahead of people, betraying promises of a fair recovery from the pandemic, while in Malaysia, human rights defenders, journalists and Opposition leaders faced investigations in 2021 as the government continued to use Covid-19 measures to restrict freedom of expression and assembly,” it said in its annual report published yesterday.

Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The State of the World’s Human Rights covers 154 countries and delivers an analysis of human rights trends globally in 2021. It noted that the Malaysian government curtailed freedom of expression and assembly using measures to control the pandemic as well as existing laws such as Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act, both of which the organisation has campaigned to be repealed.

Amnesty International Malaysia ED Katrina Jorene Maliamauv said the government used Covid-19 measures and other laws to silence critical speech when independent voices were needed the most.

“The pandemic was used as an excuse to silence criticism, debate and independent journalism. Instead of respecting the right to protest, political leaders put the pursuit of power ahead of the people,” she said.

In its report, Amnesty International highlighted examples where freedom of expression was obstructed by the authorities among which include the RM500,000 fine imposed on news outlet Malaysiakini for contempt of court for comments posted by its readers criticising a court judgement.

In March, the government also enacted an ordinance to combat “fake news” in relation to Covid-19 which expired with the lifting of the state of emergency on Aug 1, it said.

It added that the harsh treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers continued with immigration raids, arrests, detentions and deportations to countries where returnees were at real risk of human rights violations.

In February, the government deported 1,086 migrants and asylum seekers to Myanmar in defiance of a court order, despite increased violence and threats of persecution following the military coup there.

It noted that hundreds of people were detained in June during a series of raids on areas with high number of undocumented migrants.

The NGO added that at least 19 people died in police custody or shortly after release in the same year.

According to government figures, 105 people died in police custody, prisons and immigration detention centres between January 2020 and September 2021.

“Deaths in custody remain a perennial problem with no serious effort to address them. Instead of establishing an effective and independent commission with sufficient investigative and disciplinary powers, the government continued to push for the weak and ineffective Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) Bill in Parliament that would further dilute already insufficient mechanisms,” said Maliamauv.

The IPCC has received flak from many quarters, mainly civil rights on the commission’s independence.

Amnesty International had previously called MPs to reject the Bill and table a bill that establishes a police accountability mechanism that is independent and capable of ensuring adequate police oversight.

“A lack of effective political leadership and stability has led to continued human rights violations and a complete standstill on much needed changes.

“As politicians focused on gaining power, the people have suffered tremendously in 2021, from the fallout of the pandemic and also a failure to institute urgent human rights reforms. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, Covid-19 can no longer be an excuse for the government to suppress basic freedoms and stall on legislative amendments that will help secure human rights for all,” said Maliamauv.