Aussie rights chief hits out at Turnbull’s U-turn after silence over Anwar

Australian Prime Minister Michael Turnbull with Najib Razak during a summit with Asean leaders last March. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: The Australian head of global rights group Human Rights Watch has questioned a statement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government welcoming the release of Anwar Ibrahim, saying it was a far cry from its silence throughout the PKR leader’s incarceration.

Writing in The Guardian, Elaine Pearson said the statement by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop could not undo what she termed as Australia’s lame response to Anwar’s imprisonment, even if the government claimed that it had been engaging the previous Malaysian administration with “quiet diplomacy”.

“But even after the failure of Anwar’s final appeal in 2015, the Australian government declined to call publicly for his release,” said Pearson.

“In reality, the human rights issues get sidelined for closer trade and security ties.”

Anwar was released on Wednesday, three years after he was sentenced to five years’ jail over a sodomy charge he said was politically motivated. The former opposition leader, who the new government under Dr Mahathir Mohamad said would be made the prime minister within two years, was also given a royal pardon, lifting a ban on him from active politics.

Pearson said while it was necessary for Turnbull to forge close ties with Malaysia, he gave the impression that Australia supported the Najib administration despite allegations of human rights violations.

“All the Malaysian public saw from the visit were the beaming selfies that Najib posted of himself and Turnbull enjoying Sydney Harbour.

“This is another problem with quiet diplomacy – it enables leaders to ignore those conversations and spin high-level visits into expressions of public support for their rule,” she wrote.

She said while Australia’s own record over its treatment of refugees meant it had lost the moral authority to speak up on human rights issues, its foreign policy statement clearly urged the government to voice out on human rights internationally “to advance our national interests”.

“Australia’s lame response to Anwar’s imprisonment in Malaysia cannot be undone.

“But Asian prisons still unjustly incarcerate many prominent activists and opposition politicians, among them Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha. Speaking out clearly and regularly for their release should begin now,” said Pearson.