14 December, 2007

Anwar condemns use of security law

“I can be nice”

“Being nice is your character and you cannot change. But being nice does not mean one is weak.” - Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was once himself locked up under the colonial-era law originally designed to fight communists, said the legislation was easy to abuse.

"We are, as a principle, against the Internal Security Act and the use of the Act against anyone," he told reporters.

"We have evidence, we have experience of the abuse of the Act against political personalities and civil society leaders throughout the years after independence."

Anwar was himself beaten by the then police chief during his own detention under the Act in 1998, for leading anti-government protests demanding political reform in the wake of being sacked by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government had been very patient with the Hindraf group, and acted only after having given it a sufficient chance to conform to the law.

"The public wanted the government to take a stern action much earlier but we were very patient and tolerant," state news agency Bernama quoted Najib as saying. "When the ISA was invoked, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone."

The Bush Administration has expressed hope that the ethnic Indians detained in Malaysia will be provided full protection under the Malaysian law and would be given due process.

In reply to a question, State department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the US expects that they would be accorded all the rights accorded to any other citizen and that this be done in a speedy and transparent manner.

"I will also reiterate that it is our firm position that those individuals who want to peacefully express themselves in a political forum or any other forum should be allowed to do so," McCormack added.

Malaysia's foreign minister has defended a government crackdown on organisers of a recent protest by ethnic Indians against alleged discrimination, saying it was necessary to preserve the security of the country.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Syed Hamid Albar said the government was "very reluctant to use the ISA" which he said was only implemented when the government felt the security and safety of the country was at stake.

"We are very a sensitive country where we are multiracial, multicultural, multireligious, and if you start to incite people it can go out of hand," he said.

"So I think ultimately this is the best thing to do, to allay the fear of the public."

Earlier in a press briefing Syed Hamid defended the use of the ISA, saying other countries had similar laws, and was "no different from the Patriot Act" passed in the US following the September 11 attacks.

Despite the arrests, P Waytha Moorthy, one of Hindraf's founding members, said the group would continue its protests saying he would continue to lead the campaign from his current base in London.

He urged supporters to remain calm and avoid violent tactics, but warned that people could resort to other means to get their message across if they lose confidence in the system.

"The government has made us heroes of the community," he told the Associated Press.

"They can take all of us in, put us behind bars, but they have not solved the issue."

Waytha Moorthy, whose brother is among the five held under the ISA, said the government was deliberately making Hindraf look like a threat in order to "silence the voice of the minority".

"On our part, we are committed to a peaceful struggle," he said. "I'm still hopeful that the government will engage in dialogue with us."

Waytha Moorthy is currently lobbying foreign governments and human rights groups to call for the release of the five men.

The government maintains that it does not discriminate against ethnic Indians but Hindraf insists that an affirmative action programme granting privileges to ethnic Malays in business, jobs and education is tantamount to unfair treatment.

When Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office in 2004, he was welcomed as a modernizer who would expand democratic freedoms in Malaysia. Yesterday, his government resurrected the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that gives the executive almost unlimited power to detain opponents. The move raises serious questions about Mr. Abdullah's commitment to democracy.

By wielding a tough hand, Mr. Abdullah is aggravating the situation. Malaysians don't enjoy the same freedom of speech that other democratic nations enjoy. The press is heavily influenced by government. So one of the few ways for opposition politicians and activists to air their grievances is to get out onto the streets. By denying that right, Mr. Abdullah is challenging the groups to organize bigger rallies.

There's no appetite in Malaysia for violent street protests like the ones the country suffered in 1969, when hundreds were killed in rioting between Malays and ethnic Chinese. But equally, in a mature democracy, there's no reason that Malaysians can't be trusted to have peaceable debates about their political future. Mr. Abdullah's handling of the next round of protests will say much about where Malaysia's democracy is headed. Given yesterday's move, the signs aren't good.

The ISA has been criticized repeatedly by both international and domestic human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, the Malaysian Bar Council, and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission on grounds that it violates fundamental international standards. Enacted in the early 1960s by the British colonial government during a national state of emergency to put down a communist insurrection, it allows for detention of any person the police deem to be a threat for up to 60 days.

Detainees are denied access to legal counsel. Police can act on suspicion that an individual “has acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia or any part thereof or to maintenance of essential services therein or to the economic life thereof.” The law allows the Minister of Home Affairs to extend detention for up to two years without trial or submission of evidence. The detention order can be renewed indefinitely. Some 100 people currently are detained under the law, according to the AFP wire service, most of them Islamic militants.

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