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IPS: All Eyes On Govt After Scathing Report By Rights Panel
By Anil Netto
23/8/2001 8:37 pm Thu
22nd Aug, 2001
ALL EYES ON GOVT AFTER SCATHING REPORT BY RIGHTS PANEL
By Anil Netto.
PENANG, Malaysia, Aug. 22 (IPS) - A scathing report issued by
Malaysia's human rights commission this week belies critics who had
expected the government-appointed body, set up last year, to be
just a docile organization.
In a 66-page report on Aug. 20, the commission, known by its
Malaysian acronym Suhakam, pinned the blame for a clutch of rights
violations during a mass reformasi gathering in November squarely
on the police.
By doing so, it has put the onus on the government of Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamad to show if it respects the body it
created - and how it will respond to its findings.
The blistering report, which criticizes the way the police violently
tried to thwart a planned opposition gathering near Kuala Lumpur, is
Suhakam's second hard-hitting report this month.
Earlier, it called on the Mahathir government to liberalise rules
surrounding the right to freedom of assembly.
The two reports have enhanced Suhakam's stature and put the
authorities on the defensive - but also raises questions about how
much the commission can push its outspokenness.
The government reacted to the first report by ignoring the
commission's recommendations, pointing out that the body did not
understand national security considerations.
The government, however, will be put in an awkward spot if it
ignores Suhakam's recommendations a second time.
The commission is after all government-appointed and no one can
accuse it of harboring a political agenda. It is chaired by a former
deputy premier from the ruling party, Musa Hitam, and comprises
retired judges and other mainly establishment personalities.
Today, Mahathir said Suhakam's report on the Kesas Highway-Jalan
Kebun gathering last year was influenced by western thinking. "They
(Suhakam members) are not thinking in the interest of Malaysia," he
said upon returning from Uganda.
The report focused on an opposition rally on private property off the
Kesas Highway near Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 5 last year.
The report catalogued a slew of violations committed by the police
including the use of force on those present on the highway, the
damage caused to private property like cars and motorcycles, and
"the causing of injury to persons in detention." It also cited delays in
providing medical attention and medication for injured detainees.
It highlighted how the authorities took advantage of the detainees'
helpless situation to compel them to confess or incriminate
themselves and condemned the gathering of security intelligence and
the involvement of Special Branch officers during interrogation.
It highlighted how the authorities took advantage of the detainees' helpless situation to compel them to confess or incriminate themselves and condemned the gathering of security intelligence and the involvement of Special Branch officers during interrogation.
But Mahathir said Suhakam did not consider the fact that the police
were working under pressure to deal with that assembly. "They view
from one angle and only look at police brutality. At times the police
have to resort to force because the demonstrators too use force,"
But analysts say the onus is now on the government and law
enforces to prove that they respect the findings of the commission.
"Suhakam's points are valid. It is consistent with their earlier report
and all the monitoring work done by NGOs - that is, it is the police
approach that is the problem," said S. Arutchelvan, coordinator of
the human rights group SUARAM.
"Suhakam's points are valid. It is consistent with their earlier report and all the monitoring work done by NGOs - that is, it is the police approach that is the problem," said S. Arutchelvan, coordinator of the human rights group SUARAM.
"The police have to look at the report with an open mind. For a start,
they have to take action against those implicated by Suhakam. That
will give confidence to the public that the police is listening (to these
views)," he said in an interview.
Hitting out at unduly long remand periods for those arrested at the
gathering, Suhakam's report observed that "the arrested persons
could have been released on police bail and not remanded at all."
Although they were remanded for five days by the magistrate, they
were only questioned once or twice during that period, it noted.
Although they were remanded for five days by the magistrate, they were only questioned once or twice during that period, it noted.
Deputy Premier and Home Affairs Minister Abdullah Badawi said he
had reminded the police to observe the law when discharging their
During previous dialogues on crowd control and dispersal, the police
had complained of provocation and suffered injuries due to a hostile
public who perceived them as "rough and brutal," he added.
"It is very difficult and I have a lot of sympathy for them, but I have
always reminded them that laws are laws and they should not go
beyond them," said Abdullah.
The inquiry panel also accepted evidence that teargas was sprayed
into a truck full of detainees. One witness, Saedin Wateh, testified
that he was hit in the face by the spray and was hospitalized for nine
Another man, Shaiful Khairy Kamarul Zaman, acting as the
bodyguard to Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the president of the National
Justice Party and wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim,
was hit directly by a gas canister. He said he saw one riot police
officer about 60-70 feet away aim his gas gun at the car.
Other witnesses described police personnel chasing after people
who were running away, kicking motorcycles and jumping onto the
bonnet of cars and even assaulting and kicking people.
The panel found that private property - cars, vans and motorcycles
- were damaged by police personnel "in action not related to or
necessary for crowd dispersal or arrest."
The panel found that private property - cars, vans and motorcycles - were damaged by police personnel "in action not related to or necessary for crowd dispersal or arrest."
Another inquiry witness, Norazimah Mohd, testified that on the
night she was sent to a police cell for women, she was ordered by a
woman police officer to get onto the platform in the cell, strip and
do 10 knee squats.
This incident prompted the inquiry panel to find that "requiring a
person to strip and to squat is degrading treatment."
In a bizarre incident, a police inspector testified that was approached
by seven to eight men who attacked him. He said he was punched
and kicked and hit on the head with a hard object and then rescued
by an unknown person and was later hospitalized.
The commission said it had received complaints that police personnel
tried to disrupt peaceful gatherings by creating violent scenes so
that they had an excuse to arrest members of the gathering.
The inquiry panel said it found it more probable that the assault on
the inspector "was orchestrated to turn an otherwise peaceful
gathering into a violent one."
In all, 46 witnesses including 15 police personnel testified over the
20 days of the inquiry, which began on Nov. 29 last year.
The Cabinet's preparedness to give prompt attention to the latest
"will be an acid test as to whether the government is serious in the
promotion and protection of human rights in Malaysia," said Lim Kit
Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party.
He suggested that the government may be only waiting for another
eight months when the present two-year term of the commissioners
expire before reorganizing the commission "to stack it with more
malleable commissioners who would slavishly toe its line."
Earlier on, the commission had come under fire from critics who
wanted it to press harder to get earlier access to those detained
under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention
The commission was also hit for failing to conduct an inquiry into a
spate of racially motivated attacks this year that targeted Indian
Malaysians in a squatter area near Kuala Lumpur, leaving six people
dead and scores injured.
For now, though, most people are watching to see if the
government will listen to Suhakam's views. "If it continues not to
heed the commission's recommendations, Suhakam might as well
close shop," said one rights activist.
(c) 2001 Global Information Network.
IPS NEWSFEED 22/08/2001