WASHINGTON (AFP) 14/12/07 — The United States demanded Thursday that Malaysia provide due process of law to five leaders of a rights group held under a draconian law, after they organized peaceful protests to highlight racial and religious discrimination.
Washington also underscored its "firm position" that Malaysians be allowed to peacefully express themselves, saying it was fundamental for healthy civil society and political stability.
The five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), pushing for an end to discrimination of ethnic Indians in multi-racial Malaysia, were picked up Thursday and ordered held under the feared Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention indefinitely without trial.
"Our expectation as a government is that these individuals would be provided the full protections under Malaysian law, that they would be given due process, that they would be accorded all the rights accorded to any other citizen, and that this be done in a speedy and transparent manner," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"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," he told reporters.
Human rights groups have campaigned for the abolition of the Internal Security Act, a law that they say has been abused by the authorities.
The Malaysian government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should ensure that the five arrested leaders are provided legal rights "consistent with Malaysian law and international standards," a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hindraf enraged the government last month by mustering at least 8,000 people to the streets of Kuala Lumpur after another rare demonstration organized by electoral reform campaigners. Police used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges to break up the street protests.
A Hindraf spokesman said the arrests of P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan, R. Kenghadharan, V. Ganabatirau and T. Vasanthakumar would not silence the movement, which the government has accused of stirring up racial tension.
The Malaysian government, led by ethnic Malays since independence, has always used deadly race riots in 1969 as a reason for controls on freedom even though some groups believe Malaysians have matured enough to discuss their grievances openly.
"Malaysian authorities are obligated, like any sovereign countries' government, to balance the need for public order with equally important need for robust and free debate of issues important to Malaysian citizens," the State Department official said.
"It is our hope that the Malaysia government will allow the freest possible debate," said the official.
The ISA is currently being used to hold more than 100 people, including about 80 alleged Islamic militants.
It is not thought to have been used against government critics since 2001, when Malaysia was under former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who used it to quell a reform movement triggered by the arrest of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.
Anwar was assaulted, on the night he was arrested, by the national police chief, who was eventually convicted and jailed briefly and fined for hitting the leader.