Sunday, December 16, 2007

Malaysian Indians unfazed by anti-terror act arrests

POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Activists Unfazed by Anti-Terror Act Arrests
By Baradan Kupusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 14 (IPS) - By arresting five lawyers for taking out a peaceful march, under the internal security act (ISA), Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government may have invited intensified opposition to the draconian, colonial period law.

On Monday, the Movement to Ban ISA, a coalition of 87 non government organisations (NGOs) will organise a rally in complete defiance to warnings that no public protest will be tolerated.

"The use of the ISA is completely indefensible and we will protest publicly to show the authorities and government how we feel," said Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, of the coalition, called GMI in its Malay acronym.

"ISA is a cruel and arbitrary law that creates a situation conducive for torture and ill-treatment," he said speaking with IPS. "The ISA blatantly contradicts international human rights standards."

Badawi, long extolled as the 'gentle father of the nation' has shown a tougher side by unleashing riot police to break up public protests, even mild ones by a group of about a dozen lawyers walking to mark Rights Day on Dec. 10.

The new tough approach that deems all public show of protest as a ‘threat to national security’ culminated in the arrest on Thursday of five ethnic Indian lawyers who were the brains behind the Nov. 25 protest by the minority against alleged official marginalisation.

In a late morning operation officers from the intelligence wing of the national police arrested the five from their homes or offices in the capital and immediately drove them 300km north to the Kamunting Detention Camp, where political prisoners are held indefinitely without trial.

The five, members of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), a non-government organisation (NGO) were arrested under the Internal Security Act or ISA, a repressive colonial-era law, after Abdullah declared, a day earlier, that the public protests were "threats to national security."

HINDRAF alleges that the Indian-Tamil minority has been marginalised and suffer from poverty, deprivation and a Malay-first policy that see few benefits coming their way.

National Police Chief Musa Hassan said in a statement that the five will be put away for two years in the detention camp. He also refused to rule out more arrest in the days ahead. The detention can be extended for two-years at a time at the government's sole discretion and cannot be challenged in court.

SUARAM, the noted Malaysian rights group, said 84 people are currently being held under the ISA in Kamunting. One man was detained for 17 years before he was released, SUARAM said, urging the government to release the five Hindraf leaders.

"People are shocked and disgusted by the action," said Sivarasah Rasiah, a human rights lawyer who has represented scores of ISA detainees and is founder of SUARAM. "There is simply no justification to use the ISA," he told IPS. "They protested peacefully. They should be either charged in court or released immediately."

"The history of the ISA reveals that many detainees were subjected to torture, inhumane and degrading treatments, especially during the first few weeks of detention," he added.

The five lawyers for Hindraf were led by Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, 46, who has been campaigning to improve the social and economic conditions of ethnic Indians since 1998 but has been labelled by the authorities as an extremist whose actions are a danger to Malaysia's multi-ethnic society.

Waythamoorthy Ponnusamy, the younger brother of Uthayakumar, is in London after a campaign in India last week to drum up support for Hindraf and bring international pressure on the Malaysian government. "They can arrest all of us but they cannot suppress our protest. They cannot deny that Indians are marginalised and live like slaves in their own country," Waythamoorthy said in a telephone interview from London.

Ponnusamy plans to open a Hindraf office in London to help keep up international pressure on the government to offer ethnic Indians a "new deal" so that they too can prosper like other races in Malaysia.

Ethnic Indians make up about eight percent of the country's 27 million people and are at the bottom of the social and economic scale. Malays comprise some 60 percent and control the government while ethnic Chinese are about a quarter of the population and dominate business.

"The latest ISA arrests are a huge step backwards for democracy," said Aliran, an influential social reform movement in a statement condemning the use of the ISA. "Nobody should be detained without trial. Detaining them under this undemocratic law will not resolve the underlying causes of the grievances and disillusionment that have been expressed by the Hindraf leaders which have struck a chord among Indian Malaysians," Aliran said. "It is the fear of the eroding loss of confidence that has driven the government to take this desperate action.’’

United States President George W. Bush’s administration has also expressed hope that the ISA detainees will be provided full protection of the law and given due process.

In reply to a question, state department spokesman Sean McCormack was reported saying that the U.S. expects that they would be accorded all rights due to any 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 said.

Activists said the expression of concern by the U.S. government were a boost to the democracy movement. Hindraf has launched a signature campaign to urge the government to release the five.

Over 70,000 have signed the petition on the first day. Hindraf is also protesting by holding special prayers in all Hindu temples in the country and is urging leaders of other faiths to join in solidarity with ethnic Indians in their prayer protest. Human rights lawyers also said the arrests failed to cow them.

Activists have formally asked the National Human Rights Commission to investigate and hold an inquiry into the government crackdown on dissent and urged quick release of the five ISA detainees.

The use of the ISA came in the wake of a month-long campaign in the national government controlled media to brand any form of dissent as a "threat to national security’’.

Dissenters were branded traitors, extremists and accused of "developing links with terrorists’’. Opposition party supporters were charged for various implausible offences and refused bail.

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