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Human Rights in Malaysia

Amnesty International Report 2008

Head of State: Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Mizan Zainal
Head of government: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 26.2 million
Life expectancy: 73.7 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 12/10 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 88.7 per cent

At least 10 people died in police custody in 2007. Despite continuing reports of such deaths and of excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrations, the Malaysian government failed to implement key recommendations for police reform. Scores of people were detained without trial under various emergency laws. Restrictions on freedom of religion continued. Grievances felt by many among the ethnic Indian Malaysian minority community, including discrimination and economic marginalization, were aggravated by the destruction of reportedly unauthorized Hindu temples. Mandatory death sentences continued to be issued. Refugees and migrant workers were arbitrarily detained and assaulted during immigration raids.

Police reform

A Bill to establish a Special Complaints Commission (SCC) to monitor and investigate complaints of misconduct by police and other law enforcement officers was introduced. The Bill prompted concerns that the recommendations of a 2005 Royal Commission of Inquiry were not adequately reflected, particularly as regards the proposed SCC's independence and investigative powers. Not only did the Bill grant the Prime Minister broad powers to appoint and dismiss Commissioners, but it also included the Inspector-General of Police as a permanent SCC member. The SCC also did not have the power to oversee police investigation of complaints.

The Criminal Procedure Code was amended to provide increased protection to people under arrest. It required the police to inform detainees arrested without a warrant of the circumstances of their arrest and, in most cases, to allow detainees to contact a family member or a lawyer.

Deaths in custody and excessive use of force

At least 10 people died in custody in 2007 including at least two reported suicides, and police reportedly continued to use excessive force on peaceful demonstrators.

  • On 10 and 25 November, police sprayed peaceful protesters with tear gas and irritant-laced water cannons during two mass demonstrations, the first calling for free and fair elections and the second highlighting the discrimination and other grievances felt by ethnic Indian Malaysians.
  • Detention without trial

    The use or threatened use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) continued to be employed to suppress perceived critics of the government, with a specific threat to bloggers. Following the November demonstrations, the Prime Minister warned that the ISA could be used to prevent "illegal" protests. The ISA allows for detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely.

  • At least 83 people were detained under the ISA.
  • Most were alleged members of Islamist groups, including Jemaah Islamiah. At least four suspected Jemaah Islamiah members were arrested in 2007, and at least 16 were released during the year, having all been detained for over four years. Many were given restricted residence orders.
  • Others arrested under the ISA included five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force, a group campaigning for the rights of ethnic Indian Malaysians, who were sent directly to Kamunting Detention Camp. Five others, arrested for allegedly spreading rumours of racial riots, were subsequently released.
  • In October 2007, Abdul Malek Hussain, an ex-ISA detainee, was awarded damages of 2.5 million ringgit (approximately US$746,000). The judge ruled that he was unlawfully detained in 1998 and that he had been assaulted and tortured in custody.
  • Suspected criminals continued to be detained under the Emergency Ordinance (EO) (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act (DDA). Under both, suspects could be detained for up to 60 days for investigation after which a two-year detention order, renewable indefinitely, could be applied. Between January and August, 550 people were detained under the DDA. Both the EO and the DDA put suspects at risk of arbitrary detention and torture or other ill-treatment.

    Migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers

    Mass arrests of migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers by the People's Volunteer Corps (Rela) continued. According to a government news agency, 24,770 migrants had been detained by Rela as of August 2007. Rela officials continued to be accused of using excessive force and arbitrary detention when conducting raids.

    Migrant workers were also subjected to psychological and physical abuse by agencies and employers. They were often denied equal access to benefits and protections guaranteed to Malaysian workers, including maternity provisions, limits on working hours and holidays.

    Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments

    Caning continued to be used for many offences, including immigration offences. Irregular migrants (those lacking proper documentation) and refugees were reported to have received canings.

    Death penalty

    In March, the government passed amendments to the Penal Code introducing mandatory death sentences for acts of terrorism that result in death. Anyone found guilty of providing funds for terrorist acts that result in death would also receive a mandatory death sentence. Death sentences continued to be passed during 2007, with mandatory death sentences for drugs trafficking. The authorities did not disclose details of executions.

    Freedom of expression

  • On 13 July, People's Justice party staff member and internet blogger Nathanial Tan was arrested at his office and detained under the Official Secrets Act. He was arrested on suspicion of having access to state secrets, namely official documents relating to corruption allegations, posted on his blog.
  • Discrimination

    Freedom of religion

    Restrictions on the right to religious freedom remained. People wishing to convert out of Islam continued to face barriers to having their conversion recognized by the civil courts.

  • In January, Revathi, a Muslim by birth, was detained at the Malacca Syariah High Court while applying to have her religious status recognized as Hindu. She was taken to a religious rehabilitation camp in Selangor and held there for six months. In March, the Islamic authorities removed Revathi's daughter from her husband, and placed her in the custody of Revathi's Muslim mother.
  • A 100-year-old Hindu temple was destroyed in Shah Alam in November, on the eve of the Hindu festival Deepavali. Several people were injured and 14 were arrested as devotees tried to stop the demolition. Other reportedly unauthorized Hindu temples were demolished to make way for development projects in 2007 despite petitions by local Hindu communities.
  • Rights of transsexuals
  • On 30 July, Ayu, a transsexual, was seriously beaten by officials from the Melaka Islamic Religious Affairs Department (JAIM). They reportedly punched and kicked her, rupturing a pre-existing hernia. A JAIM official stated that Ayu was detained for committing the "offence" of "men dressing as women in a public space", which is punishable by a fine of 1,000 ringgit (US$300), a six-month prison sentence or both under the Melak Syariah Offences Act.
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