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Obama's historic visit to Malaysia an opportunity to speak loudly on rights

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speak at the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center in Cyberjaya, 27 April 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speak at the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center in Cyberjaya, 27 April 2014

REUTERS/Larry Downing

US President Barack Obama should use his historic visit to Malaysia on April 26-27, 2014, to speak directly to concerns about the country's deteriorating human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said on April 24. Obama will be the first US president to visit Malaysia since 1966.

"Malaysia's claims of being a tolerant and rights-respecting democracy don't stand up to scrutiny," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama needs to take up concerns that basic rights are under threat, and that civil society is squeezed between restrictive laws and abusive government implementation."

In a letter sent to Obama in March, Human Rights Watch urged the president to raise human rights issues during his visit to Kuala Lumpur, and to meet with members of human rights groups, civil society organizations, opposition political party figures, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

Contrary to images Malaysian leaders try to portray abroad, the government continues to use vague, overbroad, and outdated laws to prosecute or harass political opponents, Human Rights Watch said. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was recently prosecuted and convicted for the second time in his political career under Malaysia's colonial-era "sodomy" law; the colonial-era Sedition Act has been used against other opposition figures, including lawyer and opposition politician Karpal Singh, who died in a car accident on April 17. Even the recently enacted "reform" legislation, such as the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act, are being used to prosecute peaceful protesters, such as the rally organizers of protests after the disputed May 2013 elections, Human Rights Watch said.

The government invoked another outdated law, the abusive 1966 Societies Act, to declare illegal COMANGO, a coalition of human rights groups that recently highlighted human rights problems in Malaysia at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The government more recently has used the Societies Act to prosecute a high-profile Shia Muslim leader.

Malaysian leaders have long used the country's Printing Presses and Publication Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act to pressure media companies and outlets, Human Rights Watch said. Opening a newspaper in Malaysia still requires approval from the government, and criticizing the government can lead authorities to close a media company down.

The White House indicated in a briefing on April 18, 2014, that Obama would not be meeting with parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, thus missing an important opportunity to express disapproval for the politically motivated prosecutions against him.

"President Obama should speak out on Anwar Ibrahim"s case and meet with him while in Kuala Lumpur," Sifton said. "Neglecting to do so sends a message to the Malaysian government that misuse of courts for political gain is acceptable to the US."

Police abuse also remains a serious human rights problem in Malaysia. A recent Human Rights Watch report, "No Answers, No Apology: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia," found unjustified shootings, mistreatment and deaths in police custody, and excessive use of force to disperse public protests, for which the police are rarely held accountable. Investigations into police abuse are conducted primarily by the police, who do not act transparently or impartially in their inquiries, and there is no effective independent oversight mechanism to turn to when police investigations invariably falter. The result is heightened public mistrust of the police and the government.

Tolerance of Malaysia's many minority communities is also under threat, Human Rights Watch said. Government leaders routinely denounce ethnic and religious minorities, who face harassment and spurious prosecutions.

LGBT people face particular persecution, with officials banning group events or using offensive and false allegations to undermine their activities. In 2013, extremist religious groups filed complaints with the police against an LGBT event, deeming it a "deviant sex festival," forcing the organizers to cancel it. The police in 2011 banned Seksualiti Merdeka, an LGBT gathering and arts festival. Government religious officials and police also frequently arrest transgender women under state-level Sharia (Islamic law) provisions prohibiting cross-dressing, and there are credible reports of abuses occurring during the raids and while the women are in police custody.

"President Obama should highlight that LGBT people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else," Sifton said. "Speaking out on anti-gay persecution in Kuala Lumpur could have a long-lasting impact in Malaysia, both in demonstrating international support for this community under threat, and in setting the tone for a more civil public debate in the country."

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