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Minority rights activists detained without trial; Internal Security Act being used to silence dissent, says SEAPA

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Malaysian authorities have invoked a draconian law allowing detention without trial on five leaders of a movement which organised a recent rally to express disaffection over the plight of the marginalised minority ethnic Indians in the country.

Inspector General of Police Musa Hassan confirmed the arrest of P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan, R. Kenghadharan, V. Ganabatirau (misspelled in a previous alert as "Ganapathy Rao") and T. Vasanthakumar under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) on 13 December 2007, reports the independent web-based daily "Malaysiakini". The five leaders of the group, Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), have been sent to the Kamunting detention centre in the Perak town of Taiping, 300 kilometres north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, to be detained for two years.

Originally enacted to contain security threats during the armed communist insurgency in the 1960s, the ISA has been repeatedly amended to remove safeguards from abuse. It now allows for a 60-day detention without warrant, trial and access to legal counsel, after which the period of detention can be extended for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, without submitting any evidence to the courts.

SEAPA is appalled at the drastic measure taken by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in his other capacity as the Internal Security Minister, purportedly in prioritising "public safety" over "public freedom".

As local SEAPA partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), and the Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI) argued in a joint statement, "such action further [fuels] the people's distress, especially the [ethnic] Indians, that the government [is] unprepared to address their concerns". (See http://www.cijmalaysia.org/display_story.asp?ID=563 )

SEAPA joins the two local organisations in calling for the five to be brought to court for any crimes they may have committed, failing which they should be released.

Indeed, over the past weeks, the government-controlled mainstream media have either ridiculed or demonised the group HINDRAF, quoting largely the authorities in one-sided reports without giving the aggrieved party room to detail their exact grievances. The police chief himself has alleged the group of having terror links without furnishing details and proof.

HINDRAF held a 25 November rally that drew about 10,000 ethnic Indians, who are mostly Hindus, to publicly speak out and stand up for their rights as fellow citizens in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country dominated by the ethnic Malays.

To prevent the rally, police invoked a rare court order under Section 98 of the Criminal Procedure Code, applicable to urgent cases of nuisance, barring rally participants from certain locations for seven days. Even so, protesters defied the ban, leading to the arrest of some 400 people, with 31 denied bail and facing various charges including attempted murder.

On 23 November, Uthayakumar, Ganabatirau and P. Waythamoorthy were arrested and later charged under the Sedition Act for allegedly inciting hatred in their speeches at a 16 November gathering in the Selangor town of Batang Berjuntai. Discharged by the court on 26 November, they faced the same charge again after the prosecution filed for a review of the ruling.

Uthayakumar, who is a lawyer, faces another second sedition charge over a 15 November letter to United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which was posted on a website documenting alleged acts of police abuse, reports "Malaysiakini". He faces a maximum fine of RM5,000 (approx. US$1,500) or a jail term of up to three years, or both. A repeat offence can land him a maximum jail term of five years.

SEAPA also notes that the ISA is an instrument of fear that has been used to silence dissent to great effect during times of political upheaval for the ruling party. In 1987, the law was used to suspend three newspapers for six months and arrest 106 people, including leading opposition politicians, activists and community leaders, detaining some for two years. Former detainees have described how the first 60 days were spent in solitary confinement when they were not being humiliated and tortured during interrogations. The law has been repeatedly cited by the ruling elite to curb public discussions on "sensitive" issues and criticisms of the government.

By invoking the law now, the government appears to intend to create a chilling effect on an increasingly vocal citizenry who have been braving official warnings, arrests and beatings from riot police in calling for reforms in the judiciary, electoral system, human rights, and political and economic policies, via petitions and marches in October and November.

Meanwhile, on 13 December, more than 200 participants from local and international organisations attending Malaysia's Global Knowledge 3 Forum in the capital signed an open letter ( http://www.apc.org/english/news/index.shtml?x=5361763 ) to the prime minister, urging the government to uphold its responsibility to the Constitution, grant the right to freedoms of assembly and expression without favour, as well as drop charges against those "expressing their constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and expression".

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