Malaysia backsliding on human rights: NGOs

KUALA LUMPUR - Rights groups on Wednesday accused Malaysia's government of reneging on what they called an "empty promise" to improve human rights, after a UN review last week also raised concerns.

Amnesty International and Malaysian rights NGO Suaram said Prime Minister Najib Razak's vow was in tatters following new restrictions on peaceful assembly, measures reinstating detention without trial, and prosecutions of opposition figures.

In a joint statement, they also noted a continuing scandal involving cases of ill-treatment and even deaths of people held in police custody.

Facing ebbing voter support for his now 56-year-ruling coalition, Najib in 2011 abolished some repressive laws and pledged to protect rights, acknowledging public pressure for "a more open Malaysia".

That now "appears like an empty promise", Amnesty and Suaram said in a joint statement.

The UN Human Rights Council last week in Geneva made 232 recommendations for improvements during a review of the Muslim-majority nation's record.

The council highlighted some of the same concerns raised by Amnesty and Suaram, as well as Malaysia's failure to ratify core international human rights treaties.

Amnesty and Suaram said many of the recommendations made during the last review in 2009 were reiterated, while "new areas of concern are emerging".

"Malaysian government representatives present at the review failed to adequately respond to many of the questions raised by UN member-states and were unable to give clear action plans or timelines on many of the key issues," they said.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week: "In the weeks before the UN review, Malaysia passed laws permitting detention without trial, dragged critics into court for staging protests and showing films, and continued its dubious prosecution of the opposition leader."

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of a sodomy charge in 2012, but the government is appealing. Anwar denies the charges, which he calls a government-orchestrated smear campaign. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia.

Najib's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Najib's 2011 rights pledge came as he geared up for close-fought elections that were held in May this year and won by his authoritarian coalition.

However, despite scrapping some controversial security laws allowing detention without trial, authorities have since restored those powers in other laws.

The government also introduced a law in late 2011 banning street protests and has continued to prosecute critics under a sedition law that Najib has promised to scrap.