GENEVA, December 9, 2016 – Malaysia must protect all of its human rights defenders instead of targeting them under national security legislation, said today a group of United Nations human rights experts*.

Their call comes after weeks of heightened pressure on BERSIH 2.0 – a coalition of civil society organizations campaigning for clean and fair elections – and the organizers of the Bersih 5 rally, held in three cities across Malaysia on 19 November 2016.

“We are particularly concerned at the arrest of Maria Chin Abdullah, the Chairperson of BERSIH 2.0, on 18 November 2016 and her subsequent detention under the Security Offences Special Measures Act 2012 (SOSMA),” the experts said.

SOSMA specifically states that no individual will be arrested under the law for ‘political activity’ or ‘belief’ and that its use is strictly restricted to matters pertaining to public order and national security.

“Although Ms. Chin Abdullah has now been released, the detention of a prominent woman human rights defender under SOSMA sets a troubling precedent, by suggesting that democratic participation can be a threat to national security,” they cautioned. “Her arrest will clearly have a chilling effect on civil society participation”.

Ms. Chin Abdullah, who was the first peaceful activist to be detained under SOSMA, has also been subject to a series of death threats since last October, along with her sons, as well as fellow human rights defenders Ambiga Sreenevasan and Mandeep Singh.

“We urge the authorities to investigate these deeply worrying threats thoroughly and without delay, and bring the perpetrators to justice,” the experts said. “Human rights defenders play a crucial role in any democratic society and their work should be respected and protected.”

In another worrying development, noted by the experts, the office of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER) – an organisation working with women and youth in the areas of political participation and civil liberties – was raided by the police on 28 November 2016 as part of an investigation under SOSMA. Ms. Chin Abdullah was the former executive director of EMPOWER.  

In both cases, SOSMA was used in conjunction with article 124C of the Penal Code, which covers activities ‘detrimental to parliamentary democracy’ and is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under SOSMA, detainees can be held up to 28 days without judicial scrutiny.
The experts also expressed concern that the police summoned civil society activists close to Ms. Chin Abdullah for interrogation, reportedly to provide evidence against her.

Reacting to allegations that the detention of Ms. Chin Abdullah might be related to the receipt of foreign funding by BERSIH 2.0, the experts stated: “We are dismayed at these allegations and wish to remind the Government of Malaysia that the ability to receive human, material and financial resources from domestic, foreign and international sources is a vital part of the right to freedom of association.”

“The allegation that an organization might have received foreign funding in the past is not a legitimate ground to arrest and detain a human rights defender exercising her rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” they stressed.

The experts expressed further concern by the Government’s portrayal of the work of BERSIH 2.0 as ‘political’. “Human rights work is not a means to attain political power,” they said. “Calling for a free, fair and transparent election system not only complies with international human rights law, but also benefits society at large, not a particular party or candidate. Arresting and harassing members of such a movement, on the other hand, appears unequivocally ‘political’,” they further stressed.

Finally, Special Rapporteurs Kiai and Kaye recalled their pending requests to visit Malaysia, sent in 2011 and 2013, and 2014 respectively. “We hope the Government will respond positively to these long-standing requests, with a view to ensuring that the State’s legislation and practices comply with international human rights norms and standards”, the experts concluded.

 (*) The experts: the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Maina Kiai; the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst; the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye; and the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, Ms. Alda Facio.