Friday, September 12, 2008

Malaysia activists denounce arrests under draconian law

Malaysia activists denounce arrests under draconian law

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Malaysian activists Saturday denounced the arrests of an opposition politician, a prominent blogger and a journalist under a tough security law, while Washington also weighed in.

The arrests come at a time when the opposition in Malaysia is trying to seize power from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has come under mounting pressure to quit the ailing administration.

The three were arrested Friday and are being held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Ismail Omar, deputy inspector-general of police, was cited as saying by the official Bernama news agency.

The ISA, which human rights groups have pushed to have abolished, allows for renewable two-year periods of detention without trial and is normally used against suspected terrorists.

"The use of the ISA is totally unjustified and indefensible," GMI, a rights group campaigning for the end of the ISA, said in a statement pressing for the immediate release of the three.

"Numerous ISA detainees, past and present, have been subjected to torture (mental and physical), inhumane and degrading treatments," it added.

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 told AFP.

"The United States believes that the Malaysian government should provide due process and treatment consistent with Malaysian law and international standards," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar justified the arrest saying the offending articles had insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohammed -- a criminal offence in predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

Hours later, police arrested 32-year-old Tan Hoon Cheng, 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".

Malaysia's resurgent opposition is led by the flamboyant Anwar Ibrahim, who is plotting to topple the government as soon as next week. He Friday condemned the three detentions under the ISA as "draconian and unjustified."

Anwar himself is facing trial on sodomy charges, allegations he says are politically motivated.

Three Malaysian newspapers -- the Sin Chew Daily News, The Sun, a free English-language daily, and Suara Keadilan, which is published by the opposition -- were also Friday threatened with suspension.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, of Bar Council Malaysia, said she was alarmed that the three newspapers have been censured over their news coverage.

"This, together with the arrest of Raja Petra under the ISA, may be viewed as a chilling message that our fundamental freedoms are not secure," she said.

Ambiga, who represents lawyers in the country, said the ISA was "unconstitutional and oppressive, and has no place in a society that respects and upholds the rule of law."

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