Allahyarham Baharuddin Ahmad – Malaysia’s 1st. Martyr
“They plucked the flower, and she said, ‘After me, a bud will rise up.’ Rejoice in eternal paradise, Zeinab,” read a sign held by one of the women.
The Malaysian prime minister’s major announcement that the government would abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) and other repressive laws should be achieved promptly and without passing new legislation in their place, Human Rights Watch said today.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak promised in a September 15, 2011 speech to revoke the ISA – for half a century the target of international condemnation – and three emergency laws. But subsequent government statements indicated that the law would remain in effect for months and that new preventive detention laws would be enacted.
“Actions speak louder than words for Malaysian activists, opposition politicians, and others who suffered long-term detention without trial under the infamous ISA,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately revoke the abusive laws and release or fairly prosecute those being held in preventive detention.”
Prime Minister Najib’s speech and subsequent statements by members of his Cabinet raises concerns that the proposed changes may have little impact on government practice, Human Rights Watch said. Najib said that to prevent “subversive activities, organized terrorism and crime to maintain peace and public order” the government would enact two new laws under Article 149 of the Malaysian Constitution. Article 149 permits passage of laws with overly broad and vague security provisions that could be used to detain people without charge and deny basic freedoms.
Real human rights reform in Malaysia requires more than abolishing the ISA, Human Rights Watch said. Although the government has promised to amend licensing requirements in the Printing Presses and Publications Act, long used to stifle freedom of expression, and to review overly restrictive public assembly provisions in the Police Act, neither proposal goes far enough.
Najib has already indicated that while attention will be paid to freedom of assembly it will be restricted by “a principle that is strongly against street demonstration.” Proposed reform of the Printing Presses and Publications Act would end annual renewal requirements but still leave the home minister with unrestricted power to decide what can or cannot be published. Both of these rights-abusing laws should be abolished or significantly revised.
The senior minister in charge of legal affairs, Nazri Aziz, this week announced that detention without trial would continue under two new counterterrorism laws even after the repeal of the ISA and other laws, but that the detention periods would be shorter.
Discrepancies and absence of timeframe
No schedule for action to rescind the ISA and emergency regulations has been set but Nazri Aziz told the media that action might have to wait for the March 2012 legislative session. The Malaysian government should not delay and should set a clear timetable to implement these reforms and take a series of interim steps to demonstrate progress toward their achievement, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to demonstrate its intent to end unlawful detention, initially by publicly releasing information on all those detained under the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance, and ensuring immediate access to detainees by legal counsel and family members. The government should immediately release such detainees or charge them with a genuine criminal offense.
Revocation of the three remaining state of emergency proclamations, which Najib also announced on September 15, should be either proposed immediately by the government to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king) for revocation or considered at the October 2011 session of parliament. The government should not pass separate legislation retaining the ill-trained Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia (RELA) corps, which has been implicated in many abuses.
The government should also ensure that reform of the Printing Presses and Publications Act ends the substantive restrictions on free expression rights rather than just addressing procedural matters such as license renewal dates. It should revoke actions under the act to ban books and to prevent online news portals, like Malaysiakini.com, from issuing print editions.
Many more abusive laws
Police Act reforms should guarantee the right to peaceful public assembly in line with international human rights standards and end restrictive and often discriminatory police permit procedures. The Malaysian government should also broaden its legislative review to include other archaic laws regularly used to violate rights, such as the Sedition Act, the Societies Act, and the Official Secrets Act.
The government should rescind its ban on the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) under the Societies Act and immediately drop charges against the more than 1,700 people arrested during Bersih’s peaceful protest on July 9. The decision of “discharge not amounting to an acquittal” of charges against 30 Parti Socialist Malaysia (PSM) activists on September 19 should be amended to be a full acquittal.
“More than a single speech will be needed to convince Malaysians and concerned governments that substantial improvements in freedom of expression and assembly are imminent in Malaysia,” Robertson said. “Taking action on specific cases now is the best way to convince the world that the Malaysian government is really changing its approach.” – HRW
A young woman was found beheaded and mutilated, apparently by Syrian security agents, underscoring what witnesses and the U.N. human rights office said Friday was a fearsome new tactic of retaliating against protesters’ families to snuff out the 6-month-old uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The slain 18-year-old, Zainab al-Hosni, is believed to be the first woman to die in Syrian custody since the uprising began in mid-March. Amnesty International said Friday she had reportedly been detained by security agents to pressure her activist brother to turn himself in. The violence serves as a grim reminder of how the Assad family has kept an iron grip on power in Syria for more than 40 years by brutally crushing every sign of dissent. The idea that the regime has eyes and ears everywhere resonates in a nation of 22 million where decades of autocratic rule have nurtured a culture of deep fear and paranoia.
Witnesses and activists say retaliation against families of those involved in the uprising has ranged from threatening phone calls to beatings and even killings, as in the case of al-Hosni.
The U.N. human rights office said Friday that the harassment was even extending beyond Syria’s borders.
“Prominent human rights defenders, inside and outside the country, are reported to have been targeted,” U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva. “We are also concerned by reports of the targeting and attacking of families and sympathizers of the protesters by security forces.”
She offered no details and did not elaborate on the activists or their families being targeted outside the country.
The Syrian opposition movement has proved remarkably resilient despite a massive military assault using tanks, snipers and shadowy, pro-regime gunmen against demonstrators. According to U.N. estimates, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed in the crackdown since March and thousands more have been detained since protests began in mid-March, riding on the wave of euphoria as popular uprisings toppled longtime dictators in Egypt and Tunisia.
The mutilated teenager, al-Hosni, was from the central city of Homs, one of the hotbeds of the uprising. She was seized by men in plainclothes on July 27, apparently to pressure her brother Mohammed, who was organizing protests in the city, Amnesty said.
After her arrest, he was told by telephone that she would only be released if he stopped his activities, the New York-based group said. Her brother was eventually arrested earlier this month. On Sept. 13, his mother was summoned by security forces to pick up his body, which showed bruises, burns and gunshots, the group said.
At the same morgue, the mother happened to find her daughter’s body as well. The family said Zeinab had been decapitated, her arms cut off, and skin removed, according to Amnesty.
After Zeinab’s burial last weekend, women held a protest in Homs, hailing her as the “flower of Syria” and chanting “Syria wants freedom” and “The people want the president’s ouster,” according to video footage posted on the Internet by local activists.
“They plucked the flower, and she said, ‘After me, a bud will rise up.’ Rejoice in eternal paradise, Zeinab,” read a sign held by one of the women.
The deaths of Zainab and her brother bring to 103 the number of people who have been reported killed in Syrian custody since the uprising began in March, Amnesty said.
“If it is confirmed that Zainab was in custody when she died, this would be one of the most disturbing cases of a death in detention we have seen so far,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground.
But there have been growing reports in recent months of activists’ families facing bloody retribution, including parents of Syrian pianist Malek Jandali.
In July, Jandali participated in a rally in Washington, pressing for freedom in Syria and performing a piece he wrote called “I Am My Homeland.” Soon after, he said, pro-government gunmen stormed his parents’ house in Homs and beat his father, Maamoun, and his mother, Lina.
Jandali posted photographs of his parents’ bloodied faces on his Facebook page this week.
Still, the uprising has continued. Friday protests have become a weekly ritual in Syria, despite the near-certainty that security forces will respond with bullets and tear gas.
This Friday, Syrian security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters calling for the opposition to unite against Assad’s regime. The Syrian opposition is fragmented and has not yet formed a united front that would offer an alternative to Assad.
Several people were killed Friday in Damascus and near Homs, although there was no clear figure – a common problem in the confusion of widespread protests. One activist group, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll at nine.
An activist in Homs, Majd Amer, said there was unprecedented security presence in the city.
“They have been deploying here since last night,” said Amer as cracks of gunfire could be heard in the background.
Also Friday, the European Union agreed to widen sanctions against Syria by banning investment in the country’s oil sector. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that the new measure seeks to reinforce the ban on Syrian crude oil imports agreed on Sep. 2.
Friday’s additional measures also include a ban to deliver bank notes to the Syrian Central Bak and travel and visa bans on more officials linked to the regime.
Syria exports some 150,000 barrels of oil per day, with the vast majority going to the European Union. The EU says that Syria earned euro3.1 billion ($4.4 billion) by selling oil to the EU in 2010.
With the new investment ban, the EU seeks to target Syrian companies that explore and refine crude oil. It says that EU based operators can no longer participate or set up joint ventures with such Syrian companies, and are no longer allowed to provide credits and loans.
“Repression against the Syrian people must stop completely,” Ashton said.
“This is what democracy looks like!” A familiar chant from protesters, these words have reverberated this year from Wisconsin, in support of unions, to Cairo and other Middle East capitals throughout this exciting period of change.
But as we approach the end of this momentous year, we may well ask what democracy looks like now, after all the early promise of the so-called Arab Spring. What is being gained by all those hundreds of thousands of people massing in the streets and squares with their banners and their high hopes for change?
It is useful to consider that peaceful revolutions lead to peaceful resolutions, according to Gene Sharp, the “Machiavelli of nonviolence”. His book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Arabic, and has been claimed by some to have influenced resistance organizations all around the world. His ideas have helped inspire the foiled Velvet Revolution in Iran in 2009, the movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt, as well as the youth movement in Tunisia.
Sharp’s key theme is that political power ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler. If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power. The popular uprising against Gadaffi in Libya began as if based on Sharp’s handbook. The initial uprising against Gadaffi was overwhelmingly non-violent, with thousands of soldiers refusing to fire on the crowds and instead, joining the pro-democracy forces.
However, six months and around 13,000 deaths later, the armed overthrow of a brutal dictator has revealed the weaknesses in Libyan civil society. Forced to counter the brutality of Gadaffi’s mercenaries, retaliation with force has reinstated the power of arms as the norm. Libya is now awash with arms and history has shown us that countries where dictatorships are overthrown by armed insurrection are more likely to be unstable or vulnerable to another dictatorship.
Libya is attempting to avoid this by establishing democratic institutions in a race against time and the forces of history, as the rebel leaders are now beholden to the West for armed and financial support. Support from the U.S., the E.U. and the U.N. is seen by some elements to be undue meddling in Libyan affairs. However, critics who keep denouncing the Libyan Revolution as somehow not home-grown because it got Western help should remember that the revolutionary governments of Egypt and Tunisia were very much working against Gaddafi, who, if he had remained in power, would have attempted to undermine their fledgling democracies. With all eyes on Libya as the final stage of their popular revolution is underway with the imminent fall of the last holdout towns of Sirte and Bani Walid, the shape of the future will largely depend on the extent to which it really was a popular revolution. How much could have been accomplished without NATO intervention? Once the emphasis shifted from a humanitarian intervention to a regime change, what do NATO allies hope to gain from it? The easy answer is oil, but Libyan oil was already under the control of international oil interests.
Tensions are increasing between the different militia factions and recently defected former members of the regime are viewed with some suspicion. However, as it establishes itself in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council has proposed a policy of reconciliation, not revenge, with its first task the preparation of a new constitution for approval by referendum so that democratic elections can take place. In spite of all the problems of clearing the rubble of the war and the past, Libya is still a paradigm of how liberty can be won against a corrupt and violent dictatorship.
But liberty does not automatically lead to democracy as Egypt is finding out. The freedoms won with the overthrow of Mubarak are starting to look ephemeral as the political process slowly moves towards the Parliamentary elections scheduled for November. After a summer of exuberant activism, the continuing power and relevance of the peaceful revolution is now in question. Many activists are expressing their disenchantment with the course of post-Mubarak Egypt. Their street protests and the Tahrir Square magic have led to notable successes but still the power structure remains in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As well as frustration about SCAF decisions, there is serious labor unrest and fear of rising Islamist power. The young people of Egypt are finding that democracy is elusive and slow.
Ironically, democracy is getting harder to define especially in the U.S. today where corporations are increasing their influence in the voting process. A recent CNN headline read,”Wall Street Protesters Inspired by Arab Spring Movement.” Using the Internet, the protest campaign against the financial community is being planned to bring people out into the streets with a march through Manhattan and a sit-in at the New York Stock Exchange. Hoping for radical and non-violent reform of the global financial system, the protesters will join the international calls for bread, justice and freedom, and we can expect to hear the chant reverberating again soon in the streets of New York — “This is what democracy looks like!”
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.