Malaysian government bans its critics from traveling abroad (UPDATED)
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Malaysian government bans its critics from traveling abroad (UPDATED)

MALAYSIANS who criticize the government can be barred from going overseas and those denouncing the administration from abroad can be stopped from travelling again for three years upon their return, it was revealed today.

The Immigration Department said the ruling was enforced several months ago in a move to “safeguard the country’s image,” The Star reported.

“Anyone who runs down the Government or ‘memburukkan kerajaan’ (vilifies the government) in any manner will be barred from going abroad,” the newspaper quoted a source as saying.

“Only the Immigration Department director-general will be authorized to look into their appeals.”

The source, who is close to the department, said it will impose travel bans upon request from the police and other enforcement agencies.

Lately, government critics, including prominent opposition politicians and dissidents, have been stopped at immigration counters of the nation’s airports just before they left for other countries. In most cases, the immigration officers had reportedly not cited any reasons for not allowing them to leave.

Prominent individuals who have been restricted from travelling in recent months include the Democratic Action Party’s Tony Pua, a harsh critic of scandal-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Bersih 2.0 protest leader Maria Chin Abdullah of the Coalition of Free and Fair Elections, and Hishamuddin Rais, who escaped jail time on sedition charges earlier this week.

This week, Chin was banned from travelling to South Korea to receive the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: Najib’s crackdown on dissent isn’t going all his own way

The provision’s existence was confirmed by immigration director general Sakib Kusmi who said ownership of a Malaysian international passport was a privilege and not a right.

“The Malaysian international passport is a travel document issued by the Government under the aegis of the Yang DiPertuan Agong (Malaysian King),” he told The Star.

“So, the Government has the discretion to either issue, defer or revoke the travel document.”

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Malaysian Immigration Director Sakib Kusmi said passports were a privilege and not a right. Image via The Star.

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said the travel restriction was unconstitutional and denied Malaysians their fundamental rights enshrined in Article 5 of the Federal Constitution which touched on ‘The Right to Life’.

“Under the constitution you have personal liberties, which includes travel overseas. So by the authorities barring you from going overseas without any good reason is certainly unconstitutional,” he told Asian Correspondent when contacted today.

Asked about the rationale behind the travel restriction, Paulsen said he believed it mainly stemmed from the the 1MDB scandal.

“I think they (the government) are targeting those who are known to be critical of the government like Pua and Chin,” he said.

“The authorities do not know how to handle dissidents like them, and one of the ways is to abuse their power by barring them from going overseas.”

However, Paulsen conceded that the right to travel was not absolute in the interest of crime prevention and national security, especially involving the prevention of extremism and international terrorist activities. He noted that people declared bankrupt or had outstanding encumbrances for government-provided student loans were also affected.

Fahmi Fadzil, communications director of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), said the question of constitutionality of banning travel for Maria Chin, Tony Pua and Hishamuddin Rais must be taken up by the courts and resolved there.

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PKR Communications Director Fahmi Fadzil says the travel ban on government critics was arbitrary. Image via PKR Daily.

“As it stands, the DG of Immigration must explain under what powers citizens are being denied movement out of the country; currently only matters related to PTPTN student loan enables the Immigration Department to bar Malaysians from leaving,” he told Asian Correspondent when contacted.

Fahmi said the travel ban is excessive, arbitrary and specifically targets government dissidents contrary to principles of democracy.

According to Amnesty International Malaysia, at least 30 opposition figures have been banned from entering the state of Sarawak just before it held its state elections on May 7, 2016.

Shamini Darshni, Amnesty International Malaysia’s Executive Director said: “While there may be certain offences that merit the restriction of movement, criticizing a government does not belong among them.”

Shamini also called on the government to immediately review and amend all laws and policies that “contravene an individual’s right to move freely to ensure they are in line with international human rights law and standards.”