Malaysia: 19 arrested for peacefully protesting against development project

The arrest of 19 people, including human rights defenders, during a peaceful protest against the demolition of a historical village in Malaysia confirm fears recently expressed by UN member States at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, say the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).

On 31 October 2013, 19 protesters were arrested during a peaceful protest against the demolition of Kampung Hakka Mantin historical village in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan, south-west of Kuala Lumpur. The demolition, if allowed, would see the forceful eviction of a good number of local residents in order to make way for a mixed-use development. The protesters said they were aggressively attacked and manhandled by the police in spite of their efforts at peaceful negotiation.

The arrests are coming on the heels of the scrutiny of Malaysia’s human rights record by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council as part of its Universal Periodic Review. Some of the key concerns expressed by submitting States include restrictions of freedom of opinion and expression as well as the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, interference with land rights of indigenous peoples and ill-treatment of human rights defenders.

“The clampdown on peaceful protesters by Malaysian authorities goes against the provisions of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, which the Malaysian Government enacted to guide itself in the implementation of the constitutional right of citizens to assemble peaceably. The rule of law should, as a matter of priority, be upheld”, said Karim Lahidji, President of FIDH.

“It is concerning that the violent repression of this protest comes just days after the question of civil society freedoms has been discussed at the UN Human Rights Council. The authorities should now move towards … implementing the recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review, in particular, to bring the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 in full compliance with international standards and to guarantee fully freedoms of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly”, said Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of OMCT.

“Malaysia should waste no time in fulfilling its pledge that the development of civil and political rights in the country would ‘keep pace’ with progress made on economic and social rights”, said Nalini Elumalai, Executive Director of Suaram.

The rights defenders arrested include Suaram’s executive director, Nalini Elumalai; A Thevaraj, Suaram coordinator; Parameiswary Elumalai, an activist from the Oppressed Peoples’ Movement; as well as seven residents of Hakka village, three grass root activists from the Socialist Party of Malaysia, four State Assembly representatives, and two members of Parliament. They all have been released on police bail on the same day pending formal charges. The protesters were arrested for “obstructing public servant[s]” from carrying out their work, pursuant to Article 186 of Malaysia’s Penal Code. The offence carries a penalty of imprisonment of up to three months, in addition to a fine of RM1,000 (approximately EUR 233).

The Court of Appeals issued an order of stay of execution in respect of the demolition at 2:15pm local time on the same day, after the protesters were arrested.

The Observatory urges the Malaysian authorities to put an end to any kind of harassment against human rights defenders, to respect and protect their exercise of the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression and to guarantee in all circumstances their physical and psychological integrity, in line with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights instruments ratified by Malaysia.