Drop terrorism and other charges, protect human rights defenders

(Kuala Lumpur, November 28, 2016) – The Malaysian government should immediately and unconditionally release human rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah, said Fortify Rights today. Maria Chin is facing terrorism-related and other charges for her involvement in organizing peaceful rallies, known as Bersih, for free and fair elections in Malaysia.

This is the first time that Malaysia has charged a human rights defender with terrorism for engaging in legitimate activities. The High Court of Kuala Lumpur will consider the legality of Maria Chin’s detention at a hearing tomorrow.

“This is a new low for the Malaysian authorities,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “These charges set a dangerous precedent and should be dropped immediately. Maria Chin should be freed without delay.”

Maria Chin is being charged under Section 124C of the Penal Code, which criminalizes activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, and she is being detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), which is intended to combat terrorism activities. If convicted, Maria Chin faces up to 15 years of imprisonment.

The Malaysian Parliament enacted SOSMA in 2012 to replace the draconian Internal Security Act 1960, which allowed the authorities to detain people without trial for a period not exceeding two years. SOSMA allows for detention in a maximum-security facility for up to 28 days and provides the death penalty for serious violations

Maria Chin, 60, is the chair of Bersih2.0. She suffers from hypertension, osteoarthritis, and high cholesterol, and has been detained since November 18. According to representatives from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) as well as Maria Chin’s lawyers and family members, she is being held in a concrete 15 x 8 feet windowless cell without proper bedding. Her cell is reportedly kept lit 24 hours a day.

Article 5 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution provides the “right to life and liberty.” Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Under international law, a detention is considered unlawful if a person is arrested for engaging in activity that is protected under both domestic and international jurisdictions, such as exercising the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

The conditions of Maria Chin’s detention also fail to meet international standards as provided for by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment.

On November 20, Maria Chin’s lawyers filed a habeas corpus application in the High Court of Kuala Lumpur, challenging the legality of her detention under SOSMA and seeking her immediate release.

“We are desperately fighting for the release of Maria, [who is] being wrongly held under this most odious piece of legislation called SOSMA, ” Dato Ambiga Sreenevasan, a prominent human rights lawyer representing Maria Chin, told Fortify Rights. “There is absolutely no reason why [the authorities are holding] her under SOSMA.”

Section 4(3) of SOSMA states that “No person shall be arrested and detained under this section purely for their political belief or political activity.” The definitions of “political belief or political activity” under Section 4(12) of SOSMA include engaging in “the expression of an opinion directed towards any Government in the Federation.” Malaysian courts have also previously held that both Bersih2.0 and its rallies are lawful.

Bersih—which means “clean” in Malay—are large-scale rallies calling for free and fair elections and an end to government corruption in Malaysia. The Bersih rally on November 19 was the country’s fifth. Fortify Rights along with other international monitors observed the Bersih 5 rallies in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching and noted the overall peaceful nature of the rallies. Tens of thousands of people peacefully participated in the rallies, which took place in several locations across the country.

The Malaysian authorities arrested Maria Chin along with other Bersih2.0 committee members and supporters on November 18, less than 24 hours before the planned Bersih 5 rallies.

Since the evening of November 20, the Bersih2.0 committee and other civil society groups have held nightly vigils throughout the country calling for the authorities to release Maria Chin. On November 23, the fourth night of vigils, the Inspector-General of Police announced that the vigils violated the Peaceful Assembly Act, threatening participants with arrest. Fortify Rights monitored the first five vigils.

Maria Chin’s first hearing is scheduled to take place November 29, which happens to be International Women Human Rights Defender’s Day.

“It’s appropriate that the hearing to determine Maria Chin’s freedom will take place on International Women Human Rights Defender’s Day,” said Amy Smith. “It’s critical that Malaysia make the right decision and set Maria Chin free.”

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