13 September, 2008

OPs Lalang Returns ?

Malaysian activists and political groups Saturday denounced the arrests of an opposition politician, a prominent blogger and a journalist under a tough security law, while Washington also weighed in.

Following the arrests, the United States summoned Malaysia's top envoy in Washington for a second time in a month to protest at the apparent crackdown on dissent.

"Peaceful expression of political opinions is a fundamental right and critical to a democracy," a US State Department official said.

Reacting to mounting criticism, even from within the ruling National Front coalition, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said 32-year-old journalist Tan Hoon Cheng would be freed.

Malaysia's leading blogger, 58-year-old Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who has targeted government figures on his website "Malaysia Today", has been charged with sedition and defamation after linking Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife to the sensational murder of a Mongolian woman.

The home minister justified the arrest Friday saying the offending articles had insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohammed - a criminal offence in predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

Hours later, police arrested Tan, a reporter for the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily News in northern Penang state. She had reported on an outburst from a ruling party member who called ethnic Chinese "squatters".

Opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok, 43, from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, a member of the opposition alliance, was the third to be arrested under the ISA.

Kok has been defending herself against allegations that she complained about the noise of morning prayers at a mosque in her electorate. She has said the accusation is "preposterous".

Meawhile, Kota Raja Member of Parliament Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud has lodged a police report against former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo and website pembelamelayu.com for spreading malicious slander and lies about certain quarters pressuring the state authorities to tone down the call to prayer at mosque and surau in the state, reported The Sun.

Pembelamelayu.com quoting Mohd Khir in his blog said Seputeh MP and Puchong Assemblyman Theresa Kok had supported a petition by the Chinese in Kinrara against the azan (call to morning prayer) in their area.

The website also alleged that Seri Serdang assemblyman Satim Diman had raised the issue at the state assembly but did not get a response.

In her report lodged at the Dang Wangi police headquarters today, Siti Mariah said Mohd Khir’s statement, published in Utusan Malaysia on Tuesday, was “malicious and aimed at raising the anger and anxiety of Malay Muslims”.

“This action by Khir, the blog and Utusan Malaysia is an obvious attempt to manipulate the sentiments of the Malay and Muslim people,” Siti Mariah said.

She said newspapers should verify the facts before publishing such reports.
(The Utusan Malaysia report quoted Khir, but Kok's name was not mentioned.)

"As a Muslim, I was upset when I read the article, but upon checking with Teresa, I found out that she had not been involved in the petition at all.”

She added that she obtained a copy of the state assembly Hansard from the Speaker’s office and found that allegations that Satim was ordered to remain seated when he brought up the issue at the state assembly was unfounded.

She said it is understood that committees of the mosques involved have also lodged reports with the police against the unfounded allegations.

When contacted, Mohd Khir said: “Let the police to investigate the allegations.”

Asked if he stood by the statements made, Mohd Khir said: “A report has been lodged, so I don’t want to say anything more on the matter.”

On Wednesday, Kok, referring to the article published on PembelaMelayu.com, denied even receiving such a complaint from residents and said she personally had no problems with the prayer calls.

Kok had also demanded a retraction and apology from Mohd Khir, Utusan Malaysia, its writer Zaini Hassan and Satim.

Tan Hoon Cheng, a journalist for a Chinese-language newspaper, whose arrest triggered a furore in the ruling multiracial coalition, has been released.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar denied that the crackdown was aimed at suppressing dissent as the opposition tries to seize power, and said Tan was released on Saturday afternoon after she "cooperated with the police."

"She is not a security threat," he said, adding that one of the reasons she was taken into custody was because "we received reports her life was threatened."

Tan, a reporter for the Sin Chew Daily News in northern Penang state, was thrust into the national spotlight after reporting on an outburst from a ruling party member who called ethnic Chinese "squatters."

The arrest drew rare condemnation from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second-largest political party in the Barisan Nasional coalition.

"MCA is dismayed, disappointed and shocked with the ISA (Internal Security Act) detention of Tan Hoon Cheng," said Ng Yen Yen, head of the MCA's women's wing.

"ISA now faces improper implementation ... we should respond to the public view to review and even abolish the ISA," she said in a statement.

Anwar Ibrahim is seeking an appointment with the prime minister as soon as possible to discuss the ISA arrests.

`I urge the government to assure the Malaysian people that this politically motivated operation is over,'' Anwar said in a statement. ``Those who have been detained under the ISA should be released immediately.''

"Invoking the ISA just days before September 16 is clearly an attempt to engineer an atmosphere of fear and instability that would justify the government's heavy-handed tactics against those aligned with the political opposition,"

The nation's uneasy racial mix spilled over into riots in 1969. While Malays retain political power through the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the ethnic Chinese minority dominates the economy.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Malaysia should not resort to the ISA to silence government critics and political opponents.

"The Malaysian government apparently thinks it can only maintain power by jailing journalists and opposition politicians," said Elaine Pearson, its deputy Asia director.

"Such tactics have no place in a modern democracy. The government should free these three people at once or risk irreparable harm to Malaysia's already fragile reputation," she said in a statement.

Local rights group the Anti-ISA Movement said the crackdown could be a repeat of the infamous "Operasi Lalang" in 1987, when the government arrested almost 120 people under the ISA.

"Is this the start of a crackdown on political dissidents ... or another episode of Operasi Lalang 1987? We hope not, for the sake of the people and the country," the group said.

Three newspapers, The Star, Watan, and Sin Chew Jit Poh, were suspended in the run-up to the 1987 crackdown.

Then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the arrests followed an escalation of racial tension, blaming the media for playing up racial issues.

His successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, on Friday defended the latest arrests, saying that they were used only when there was a threat to security and public order.

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