Human Rights Advance In Malaysia: Death Penalty And Sedation Act To Be Repealed

On October 10, major changes in Malaysia’s legislation were announced during the “Law Reform Talk” at a national university. First, the Malaysian Minister of Law Liew Vui Keong renounced capital punishment saying, “All death penalty will be abolished. Full stop.” Official legislation is to be amended during the next parliamentary sitting on October 15.

At the time of the announcement, over 1,200 people were on death row in Malaysia. Previously, the death penalty by way of hanging was applicable to those convicted of murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and treason. Now the cases of those on death row are to be reviewed by the Pardons Board and a decision to commute them, which is to give life in prison, or release them, will be made. Lower level crimes, such as drug trafficking will be given different consideration.

Such is the case of Muhammad Lukman Mohamad who was accused of drug trafficking and given the death penalty in August. Mohamad was a doctor selling cannabis oil to cancer patients. At the time of his sentencing there was widespread outrage.

Amnesty International called the development “a major step forward for all those who have campaigned for an end to the death penalty in Malaysia.” And the Swedish ambassador to Malaysia commented, “We strongly welcome announcement by Malaysian Government of [its] intention to abolish the death penalty.”

Also announced during the talk is the possible repeal of the 1948 Sedation Act, which allowed previous regimes to silence opposition politicians and critics of the ruling administration. Many activists, artists, and opposition leaders were imprisoned under this act. It is expected to be rescinded during the next parliamentary sitting as well.

These historic changes come under the leadership of recently elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who ran on an anti-corruption platform. His victory in May was unexpected. His coalition, Pakatan Harapan, defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has held power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

Not only are these developments surprising in Malaysia, but they also starkly contrast the criminal justice systems of influential nations in the region. Capital punishment remains in China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Hopefully, under Mr. Mahathir’s new leadership, Malaysia will continue improve its human rights record, which has been stained in the past. These efforts to improve criminal justice and freedom of expression can serve as a positive example for human rights in the region and in the world.