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The Malaysian authorities should immediately release five ethnic Indian leaders being held under the country's Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, say the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), its local partner the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), and Human Rights Watch.

Five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) were arrested on 13 December and will be detained for up to two years because of their actions that allegedly threaten "national security".

Last month, HINDRAF brought more than 10,000 ethnic Indians onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur to complain of economic racial discrimination in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia, dominated by the ethnic Malays.

Originally enacted to contain security threats during the armed communist insurgency in the 1960s, the ISA has been repeatedly used to curb public discussions on "sensitive" issues and criticism of the government, says SEAPA.

It allows for a 60-day detention without warrant, trial or access to legal counsel. The detention can be extended for up to two years and renewed indefinitely - without submitting any evidence to the courts. According to Human Rights Watch, as of September 2007, 87 people were detained under the ISA.

"If laws were broken, then the offenders should be charged and properly tried, not detained indefinitely," says Human Rights Watch.

HINDRAF tried to get a permit for the 25 November rally but was rebuffed by the Kuala Lumpur police, who used a rare court order barring rally participants from certain locations for seven days. But protesters defied the ban, leading to violent clashes on the streets and the arrest of nearly 400 people, with 31 protesters denied bail and facing various charges including attempted murder.

The latest arrests mark a worrying trend of increasing official intolerance: Malaysians are starting to invoke their seldom-exercised right to freedom of assembly as a means of expressing their grievances, which are not being conveyed by the mainstream media.

"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...via petitions and marches," says SEAPA.

An open letter to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, signed by more than 200 participants attending a "knowledge for development" forum, urged the government to drop the charges and grant the rights to freedom of assembly and expression without favour.

Just last week on 11 December, Malaysian police arrested 26 people who were part of a civil society delegation sent to Parliament to object to proposed constitutional amendments. Among them was Gayathry Venkiteswaran, CIJ's executive director. They were released later in the day, but 17 of them are out on police bail with a hearing scheduled for later this month.

Visit these links:
- CIJ:
- Human Rights Watch:
- Open letter:
- Amnesty International 2007 Report on Malaysia:
(18 December 2007)

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