Rights activists, religious freedom ‘under attack’ in Malaysia
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Rights activists, religious freedom ‘under attack’ in Malaysia

WITH elections due by August this year, the Malaysian government continued to shift toward a more conservative Islam while cracking down on critics in 2017, despite promoting itself as an administration that upholds moderation, a human rights group said.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch released its World Report 2018 which highlighted the government’s move to tighten repressive laws while lashing out against and criminally charging peaceful critics. This, amid corruption allegations still casting a long shadow over Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib has gone to great lengths over the past year to stifle critical commentary of his government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, said in a statement. “The fear of further repression against activists will only increase as the 2018 elections approach.”

SEE ALSO: Malaysian businesses self-censoring dog images to avoid Muslim outcry 

HRW said Najib’s claim in April 2017 that freedom of speech was “thriving” in Malaysia did not reflect the reality.

“The government repeatedly used the Communications and Multimedia Act to investigate and prosecute those who criticised government officials on social media,” it said.

A bill that would allow state Sharia courts to impose higher punishments remains pending in parliament, the group said. In July, the state of Kelantan passed legislation to permit Sharia courts to order public canings.

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Pro-Palestine protesters march towards the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Dec 8, 2017. Source: Reuters/Stringer

The Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department in September detained and interrogated Turkish academic Mustafa Akyol, author of a book promoting liberal Islam, for giving a talk on Islam without authorisation from religious authorities.

“The organiser of the talk was charged with abetting Akyol and faces up to three years in prison,” HRW said. “The home minister subsequently banned Akyol’s book, along with a collection of scholarly articles by the G25 organisation, which endorses a more moderate approach to Islam.”

Activist Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the nation’s Islamisation agenda will lead to further erode national unity and lead to violence.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: Group decries govt’s move to ban book promoting ‘moderate’ Islam 

“On the one hand, some groups are labelled liberal and pluralist, yet at the same time, they are mentioned in the same breath as Isis despite the fact that liberal and pluralist are not words that would describe that particular group.”

“Instead, some of the more official pronouncements that we hear or read about are more reminiscence of Isis than any liberal could ever be,” she said, as quoted by the Malaysian insight.

“There are those who call for the prosecution of academics who warn against the increasing radicalisation of our institutions. Are we merely confused or just hypocrites?”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, HRW reviews the situation of human rights in more than 90 countries.