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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



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.

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," he said.

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.

"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.

Deputy Premier and Home Affairs Minister Abdullah Badawi said he had reminded the police to observe the law when discharging their duties.

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 days.

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."

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 without trial.

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