KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Five leaders of Malaysian Indian activist group Hindraf were detained Thursday under controversial internal security laws that allow for detention without trial, a spokesman said.
The Internal Security Act (ISA), which human rights groups are campaigning to have abolished, is currently being used to hold more than 100 people, including about 80 alleged Islamic militants.
It is believed it has not been used against government critics since 2001, when Malaysia was under the iron grip of former premier Mahathir Mohamad who used it to quell a reform movement triggered by the arrest of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
"Police detained Hindraf legal adviser P. Uthayakumar and four other leaders today in an unwarranted action under the ISA," Hindraf member S. Jayathas told AFP.
Jayathas said police also detained M. Manoharan, R. Kenghadharan, V. Ganabatirau and T. Vasanthakumar -- prominent members of the group which enraged the government by mounting a mass anti-discrimination rally last month.
"Regardless of the arrests this struggle will move on. We have many leaders who are waiting to take over and we will not go backwards but move ahead with the fight for the rights of Indians in Malaysia," Jayathas said.
Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang condemned the government's move and said that if the Hindraf leaders had committed any offence they should be charged and tried in an open court.
"It is deplorable, the use of the ISA is completely indefensible," he told AFP.
"To resort to detention without trial is a regression to the dark days of human rights violations and is something that will bring further shame to Malaysia's international image and reputation."
Three Hindraf leaders have already been charged with sedition for speeches in which they criticised preferential treatment for Muslim Malays who make up 60 percent of the population and control the government.
Malaysia is also home to 26 percent ethnic Chinese, who dominate business, and 8.0 percent ethnic Indians who complain they run a distant third in terms of wealth, opportunities and education.
The nation has been rocked by a rare series of public protests, including one last month calling for electoral reform which drew 30,000 people. A week later 8,000 people turned out for the Hindraf rally.
At both demonstrations, police used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges to disperse the crowd.
The government then rolled out a crackdown on the protesters, arresting dozens and charging them with counts including attempted murder and unlawful assembly.