Suhakam pushes for review of 'unreasonable' restrictions

NST: 15 May 2008
KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has called on the government to review the Police Act and other preventive legislation to reflect international standards. In its 2007 report released earlier this week, it said currently, such laws “unreasonably” restrict freedom of assembly and freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.
The call by Suhakam came following numerous street protests held last year by various non-governmental organisations.
Among them were the Bar Council’s Walk of Justice in Putrajaya on Sept 26, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) to demand for election reforms on Sept 8 and Nov 10, as well as the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rally on Nov 25.
“Suhakam observed that applications for permits to hold the assemblies were rejected by police on the basis that these could lead to public disorder and posed security risks.
“While it is recognised that the police have a duty to ensure peace and security, they should adopt a holistic approach in handling requests for permits. Their actions must be consistent with the principles of human rights.”
The 312-page report said citizens are increasingly demanding recognition of their democratic rights and measures to ensure peace and security should not be at the expense of human rights.
It noted that Section 27 of the Police Act 1967 clearly entrusted the police with unfettered powers to determine who can organise a peaceful assembly.
“The provision, however, does not set out the criteria and guidelines on meeting requirements for a permit. Discretionary powers are fully vested in the police,” said Suhakam.
These are among the seven key issues identified by Suhakam that the government needed to improve on.
The other issues are:
Freedom of Religion
Suhakam said the right to freedom of religion is protected by the Federal Constitution and it is unacceptable to interpret any law relating to religion in any way that leads to injustice.
In lauding a Federal Court decision last December that the (civil) High Court has jurisdiction to hear matrimonial disputes, even if one party has converted to Islam, the commission called on judges to be bold, impartial and unequivocal in dealing with complex interfaith cases, while urging the police and the local authorities to be more sensitive in law enforcement.
Administration of Justice
The commission noted that delays in court proceedings and the delays in handing down written judgments were among the main concerns that required immediate attention.
It pointed out that more than 1,000 prisoners are languishing in jail and unable to appeal because judges and magistrates had been slow in providing written judgments.
It also expressed concern that judicial review had been ousted in a number of instances, including habeas corpus challenges, which it said will undermine the right to justice and the right to a fair trial.
Additionally, it reiterated its call to repeal arbitrary clauses in the Internal Security Act and that detention without trial must be subject to judicial review and agencies authorising detention must be held accountable.
Detention Without Trial
Suhakam reiterated its call to the government to release detainees or prosecute them, and to abolish the practice of detention without trial which is contradictory to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to data from the Kamunting detention centre, there are 70 ISA detainees with more than half serving out their second detention order.
Free and Fair Elections
Suhakam urged the government to amend the relevant laws to ensure free and fair elections.
In expressing its concern, it noted that certain fundamental rights pertaining to free and fair elections, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, were either curtailed or ignored during election campaigns.
“Suhakam observed, too, that there is no level playing field, particularly in terms of access to the media, permission to hold political rallies, delineation of constituencies and redress in the courts,” it said.
It noted the authorities must immediately address allegations such as the existence of phantom voters, as well as the inefficacy of the electoral system.
“Candidates should not be allowed to resort to undemocratic means to win elections, including vote-buying, providing non-cash incentives and using public funds and facilities,” it further stated.
Suhakam said free and fair elections were crucial to lend legitimacy to a democratic society.
“Public confidence in the fairness of the electoral process is far more important than a massive mandate. While elections in Malaysia have been free, it cannot be claimed that the process had been completely fair,” it noted.
Law Enforcement
The report addressed complaints by the public against Rela. Suhakam said it had extended training programmes for law enforcement personnel to include Rela officers nationwide.
The Commission suggested that the government should deploy professionally-trained law enforcement personnel, such as from the police and Immigration Department, to accompany Rela personnel on future operations.
Rights of Vulnerable Groups
It had identified four sub-groups under this group and outlined what it hoped could be achieved for these four.
For Orang Asli and Orang Asal, Suhakam recommended the government amend the Sarawak Land Code 1958 to include the Penan community’s unique way of establishing land ownership and stewardship, in light of the fact that such customs have not been factored into the Code.
For migrant workers, Suhakam proposed that the government and foreign embassies in Malaysia thoroughly study the current recruitment process and provide adequate monitoring, regulation and punishment of recruiting agencies that violate human rights.
This is because the commission observed most of the complaints by migrant workers were due to exploitation by agencies.
In view of increasing number of refugees and asylum-seekers, Suhakam recommended that relevant government agencies work together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resolve related issues.
For persons with disabilities, Suhakam hoped the drafting of the Persons with Disabilities Bill signalled a step towards Malaysia’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
For Women and Children, Suhakam said the passage of the Anti-Trafficking of Persons Act 2007 and its gazetting is another positive development in the protection of the rights of women and children.
However, Suhakam suggested that more must be done to protect children in view of the increasing number of cases of abuse and violence against children.
The commission also expressed its frustrations at the government’s cold response to its various proposals.
“Since its inception (in 2000), Suhakam had made numerous suggestions to improve the protection of human rights.
“The commission hoped that the government would give attention to the recommendations made through various reports to date. As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Malaysia should play a leading role in upholding human rights.”