The government tightened control of dissent and curtailed the right to freedom of expression and religion. Bloggers were arrested under the Sedition Act, and the Printing Press and Publications Act (PPPA) was used to control newspaper content. Ten people were arbitrarily arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Security forces continued to use excessive force while the establishment of an independent police complaints misconduct commission was postponed. Immigration personnel and volunteers conducted mass arrests of migrant workers. At least 22 people were sentenced to death. The number executed was unknown.
During March elections, the opposition won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states and 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats, ending the overwhelming majority held by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition. In August, opposition leader and former ISA detainee Anwar Ibrahim was elected to Parliament.
"Mechanic Sanjeev Kumar became paralyzed and mentally unstable, allegedly as a result of torture while in detention..."
Freedom of expression
Authorities suspended or threatened to cancel publishing permits under the PPPA, and arrested bloggers under the Sedition Act.
- In April, authorities suspended the publishing permit of Tamil daily Makkal Osai , allegedly for giving extensive coverage to the opposition coalition in the run-up to the elections.
- In May, authorities threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic newspaper The Herald for using the word “Allah” as a synonym for “God”.
- In September, blogger Syed Azidi Syed was arrested and detained for three days under the Sedition Act allegedly for posting an article that called on people to fly the Malaysian flag upside down as a protest against certain government policies.
- In May, blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was charged under the Sedition Act for an article in which he allegedly implied the involvement of the Deputy Prime Minister in the murder of a Mongolian woman. In September, he was arbitrarily arrested and detained under the ISA. Six days before his arrest, the Home Minister was quoted as saying that he could be arrested under the ISA for insulting Muslims and degrading Islam in articles that appeared on his website. The Home Minister issued a two-year detention order, which is renewable indefinitely. In November, after much public discussion, the High Court ruled that he be released.
Detention without trial
Ten people were arrested under the ISA in 2008. At year’s end, there were at least 50 ISA detainees, including 17 who had been detained for between four and eight years without charge or trial. Thirty-one detainees were known to have been released, including four Indonesian nationals who were deported.
- Mechanic Sanjeev Kumar, who became paralyzed and mentally unstable, allegedly as a result of torture while in detention, was released in September. At the end of the year he was under restricted residence orders.
- Five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force remained detained for organizing rallies against the marginalization of ethnic Indian Malaysians. In March, while in detention, Manoharan Malayalam was elected to the state assembly. In May, the Federal Court dismissed their appeal for habeas corpus saying that their arrest had been lawful. They have since appealed against the decision to the Federal Court. Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience.
Excessive use of force
- In May, opposition MP Lim Lip Eng was beaten by security personnel believed to be from the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) after he attempted to mediate in a stand-off between police and residents in a road access dispute.
- In May, at least 10 uniformed men allegedly from the FRU forcibly dragged mechanic Chang Jium Haur from his car and beat him until he lost consciousness. To date, no one has been prosecuted for the incident.
Parliament postponed discussion on the Special Complaints Commission Bill, a proposal from government to monitor police misconduct that was highly criticized by local and international human rights groups.
Migrants’ rights, refugees and asylum-seekers
One third of Malaysia’s three million migrants remained at risk of arrest and deportation due to their irregular status, including unknown numbers who feared persecution if returned to their home country. The government makes no distinction between migrant workers and asylum-seekers and refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had registered 41,405 people of concern as of August, of whom 11,172 were children. Eighty-eight per cent were from Myanmar.
In March, the Prisons Department completed the handover of 11 immigration detention centres to the Immigration Department. The 480,000 untrained volunteers from the Relawan Ikatan Rakyat (Rela, People’s Volunteer Corps) took over management of the centres. Reports of serious abuses against detainees by Rela members increased.
- In April, a riot broke out in Lenggeng Immigration Detention Centre in protest against the severe beating of some detainees and the deplorable conditions in the immigration centre.
Rela members, who can make arrests without a warrant or assistance from police or immigration officers, failed to distinguish between asylum-seekers, refugees, stateless persons, and migrant workers during their immigration operations. In one operation in August, Rela arrested some 11,600 people, to find out after processing that only 500 did not have a regular immigration status.
In June, the Home Minister announced a crackdown that aimed to deport 200,000 irregular migrants, mainly Filipinos. Philippine government figures suggested that 35,000 had been deported as of August. Thousands more had been deported by the end of the year. The Philippines Human Rights Commission was investigating allegations of beatings and overcrowded conditions of detention during the operation.
Freedom of religion
The politicization of religion markedly increased in 2008. People continued to face barriers to conversion from Islam.
- In March, Muslim-born woman Kamariah Ali was sentenced by a Shari’a court to two years’ imprisonment for renouncing Islam.
- In August, a Bar Council forum into legal conflicts faced by Malaysian families if a spouse converts to Islam was forced to stop midway through the event by police and Islamist protesters because the protesters were threatening to forcibly enter the venue. No action was taken against the protesters.
Racial discrimination remained institutionalized in Malaysia, particularly in government-backed “affirmative action policies” for Bumiputeras (Malays and Indigenous Peoples from Sabah and Sarawak) in land ownership, employment and education, which in some cases resulted in the complete exclusion of other groups.
- There was a public outcry in August after a state official proposed that the University Teknologi Mara (UITM) allocate 10 per cent of university places to non-Malays. The university, home to 120,000 students, has been open only to Malays for the last five decades. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Higher Education rejected the proposal.
In January, the NGO Malaysians Against the Death Penalty estimated the number of inmates on death row to be as high as 300, mostly for drug offences. Amnesty International is aware of 22 people sentenced to death by the High Courts in 2008, while the number of those executed was unknown.
In December, Malaysia voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments
Caning continued to be used to punish many offences, including immigration offences.