Malaysia government defends rights record

Malaysia on Wednesday defended its rights record a day after Human Rights Watch accused the government of abandoning earlier promises of reform.

"Under Prime Minister Najib Razak, civil liberties have been expanded and outdated laws repealed," a Malaysian government spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman noted that tough laws including the colonial-era Internal Security Act have been replaced, and said Najib planned to follow through on a promise to abolish the country's anti-sedition law.

The 57-year-old government dominated by the United Malays National Organisation had been accused for decades of using those and other laws to silence dissent.

"The government remains committed to replacing the Sedition Act, and to continuing the Prime Minister's reform programme," the spokesman said.

In an annual report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said the government took a "significant" step backwards on rights after suffering a historic setback in elections in May.

"The election was followed by a significant deterioration in human rights and the apparent abrupt end to Prime Minister Najib's oft-touted reform agenda," the report said.

It noted the passage of new laws reinstating detention without trial and arrests of some opposition activists over peaceful protests.

Facing ebbing voter support, Najib had in 2011 abolished some repressive laws and pledged to change the government's authoritarian ways.

But Human Rights Watch noted that the government in October approved new anti-crime measures restoring detention without trial in the multi-ethnic but Muslim-majority country.

Najib also relaxed media restrictions, but critics have dismissed the changes as cosmetic and say traditional media remain firmly under the government's thumb.

Authorities in December suspended a business magazine after it published an article viewed as critical of Najib.

The opposition brands the reform pledges a cynical ploy before last May's polls.

"Malaysia in 2013 was marked by a 'tale of two Najibs' -- promising legal reforms before the election and restoring repressive laws after it," Phil Robertson, the rights group's deputy Asia director, said in a statement.

Najib is widely believed to be under pressure from powerful UMNO conservatives who want to turn the clock back on reform.

Human Rights Watch also said the government "continued to bring dubious criminal charges against its political opponents," including prominent activists who face trial for violating the Sedition Act.

Najib pledged in 2012 to repeal the dreaded Sedition Act, but authorities continue to use it.

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