By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 12 (IPS) - An old fear, not felt since the dictatorial Mahathir Mohamad retired as prime minister in 2003, has returned -- fear of arrest without trial and indefinite incarceration without being charged.
It is considered the most dreaded punishment possible for a political opponent, an activists or a human rights lawyer.
After a brief hiatus of four years it is apparent that Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Badawi, would do no more than preach a new deal for Malaysians in which corruption was to be eradicated, crime curbed, transparency, accountability, an independent judiciary and a free media restored.
Now all the sweet talk of a new beginning lies exposes after two major public protests -- on Nov. 10 and 25 -- rattled the government and saw nearly 50 protestors arrested, jailed and facing trial for merely voicing their grievances peacefully and in public.
"Mr. Abdullah has shed all pretence of democracy. He has rolled up what little he had allowed by way of liberties," said Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini.com, an independent online news magazine. "He has finally shown his mailed fist."
Badawi’s dropping of the mask is inevitably followed by continuous threats amplified in the government-controlled mainstream media to use the dreaded internal security act (ISA) to arrest political opponents and ‘save the nation’.
"I am willing to sacrifice public freedom for the sake of national stability," Badawi said in a speech on Monday, justifying the arrest of nearly 50 protestors, many of them lawyers, opposition party leaders and pro-democracy activists. His words echoed those once uttered by Mohamad to arrest 102 political opponents and activists in 1987.
Badawi’s four-year-old administration is weighed down by the unresolved, rampant corruption in the police force, debilitating corruption scandals in the judiciary, unresolved inter-ethnic tension, curbs on freedom of religion and a spike in the cost of living.
"The one word that can best describe all these is failure," said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "He has failed to solve numerous problems that are piling up and weighing down the social system."
Under the current climate of fear that has gripped the nation even opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, who is blamed by the authorities as the "hidden hand" behind the series of public protests that has rocked the capital since October, is not spared.
He was briefly detained and questioned for 45 minutes on Tuesday morning after landing at the Kualal Lumpur airport from Turkey.
Ibrahim’s aides now fear he will be picked up anytime soon to quell rising dissent fuelled by a slowing economy, spiralling cost of living and a government seemingly out of touch with the harsh realities of daily life.
On Nov. 25 over 20,000 ethnic Indians demonstrated in the city demanding an end to official marginalisation and a fair share of the national wealth. Earlier, on Nov. 10, another massive rally led by Anwar demanded a fraud-free election.
Since last week the authorities have been arresting human rights lawyers, opposition party members and civil rights activists taking part in public protest. Any form of public protest is not permitted even a one km walk by lawyers on World Human Rights Day.
Police permits are required under Malaysian law for public assemblies, defined as a gathering of five or more persons. Any gathering without a permit is deemed an illegal assembly.
To date over 50 people have been arrested and charged in court for various flimsy offences including taking part in deemed illegal assemblies, an offence that carries a jail term of six months.
Arguments by prosecutors that such protests would destabilise the nation saw lusty guffaws from the public gallery. "The Prime Minister is under pressure from his United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) colleagues to act fast to quell the growing dissent," said Param *****araswamy, a respected lawyer and United Nations special rapporteur on the judiciary, in an interview with IPS.
''They are all rattled and they think ISA is the solution," *****rasamy said. "If that happens and if Anwar is arrested it will be a major blow to Malaysia’s budding democracy movement."
The ISA is a tough colonial era legislation originally intended to be used against a communist rebellion in the 1960s but, since then, political opponents have been fair game.
It was last used in 2001 against individuals alleged to be members of the Jemaah Islamia, labelled by many governments as a terrorist group. In 2002 it was used against eight leaders of Ibrahim’s National Justice Party. One of the victims subsequently won RM2 million (601,685 US dollars)in damages for torture and wrongful detention.
Some vocal critics of the government are already preparing their families and loved ones for the day the plainclothes police appear, usually before dawn, and hiss: "You are under arrest." Typically the police produce a detention order signed by the internal security minister, in this case Badawi himself, that will list charges that the government is not obligated to prove.
"You are taken away... it is like being dropped into a black hole," said Gobalakrishnan Nagappan, a former ISA detainee who was arrested last week and charged with participating in illegal assemblies. "It is like they own you, once you are arrested," he said recalling his days as an ISA detainee in 2002. ''It is hell on earth," he told IPS.
When Abdullah took office in 2003 he publicly repudiated the ISA and promised not to use it. Four years on he is threatening to use it to quell rising discontent whose root causes have been identified as poverty, alienation and marginalisation.
To many observers Abdullah, who had raised expectations by vowing to wipe out corruption and promote democracy, has run out of steam.
"The problem is that his rhetoric was great but he could not deliver...the corruption riddled patronage system he presides over will not allow him to deliver," said Nasir Hashim, president of the small Parti Sosialis Malaysia. "After four years he has become a willing slave of the system."
"In Malaysia, corruption continues to run rampant among the leadership,’’ said Ibrahim in a statement. ‘’The integrity of the judiciary has been shattered. Crime has risen dramatically and the economy is lagging.’’
"Citizens have taken to the streets in peaceful protest to call for reform of the electoral process. Most recently, lawyers have been thrown in jail. The government has resurrected the spectre of the ISA to intimidate and instill fear among civil rights leaders," he added in the statement.