US body calls for asset freeze of Malaysian officials who violate religious freedom

KUALA LUMPUR: A bipartisan federal US commission has proposed to the Donald Trump administration that it block the assets of specific Malaysian officials and agencies identified as responsible for violating the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The United States Commission on International Freedom of Religions (USCIRF), in its annual report on religious freedom around the world, said the Malaysian government had, among others, cracked down on critics and used religion as a political tool last year in the run-up to the general election.

The report said Malaysia had engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom, calling it a “country of particular concern”.

It said in 2017, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Umno continued to court PAS, the Islamist party once aligned with other opposition parties, by using its proposal to expand hudud punishments in Kelantan, thus turning religion into a political tool.

“State and non-state actors employed censorship, threats, and criminal penalties to silence dissent, and coordinated with religious authorities to influence social norms of what it means to be a good Muslim (such as dictating appropriateness in attire, food, and interactions with non-Muslims).

“The Malaysian government’s tightening grasp – bolstered by some religious authorities who are driving a more conservative interpretation of Islam – threatened the religious freedom and related human rights of non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, and atheists and other nonreligious persons, as well as Sunni Muslims who wished to practise Islam in their own way.

“In 2017, Malaysian lawyers, NGOs, and others fought back against these restrictive and discriminatory trends to protect the country’s multi-religious heritage, but they faced legal ambiguity between the country’s civil and shariah courts and other structural roadblocks at the state and federal levels that diminish legal protections for ethnic and religious minorities, including indigenous persons.”

The report went on to say that the obstacles had included threats against atheists, legal battles regarding the conversion of minors and the right of non-Muslims to use the word “Allah”, as well as additional attempts to strengthen punishments under the Islamic penal code.

“Based on these concerns, in 2018 USCIRF again places Malaysia on its Tier 2, where it has been since 2014, for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard for designation as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act.”

The report documented religious freedom violations and progress during 2017 in 28 countries. It also contained independent recommendations for the administration to consider for use as US policy.

Among its other recommendations to the US government regarding Malaysia were:

• Ensure that human rights and freedom of religion or belief are pursued consistently and publicly at every level of the US-Malaysia relationship, including in the Comprehensive Partnership and other discussions related to military, trade, or economic and security assistance, and in programmes that address freedom of speech and expression and civil society development, among others;

• Press the Malaysian government to bring all laws and policies into conformity with international human rights standards, especially with respect to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religious expression, including the rights to use the word “Allah” and to possess religious materials;

• Encourage the Malaysian government to become party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (without reservations), and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol;

• Urge the Malaysian government to substantively amend or repeal the Sedition Act and cease the arrest, detention, and prosecution of individuals under the act, and to review other laws that limit freedom of religion or belief, opinion and expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the press;

• Urge the Malaysian government to cease the arrest, detention, or forced “rehabilitation” of individuals involved in peaceful religious activity, such Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyya, Baha’i, and Al-Arqam groups, among others, and to release unconditionally those detained or imprisoned for related charges; and

• Encourage the Malaysian government to establish or support independent institutions, such as the judiciary, Office of the Attorney-General, and law enforcement, and to address the human rights shortcomings of the parallel civil-shariah justice systems, in order to guarantee that everyone residing in Malaysia, regardless of ethnicity or religion, enjoys freedom of religion or belief.

The report also highlighted several cases of restrictions on religious freedom and issues, including the disappearance of religious figures such as Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, as well as the “little progress” made in tracing them.

It also underscored discrimination against atheists and non-believers; the government’s targeting of human rights advocates; and the ban on the book “Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy”, published by the G25 group of prominent individuals.

The report noted that religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in countries across the globe in 2017.