Human Rights News

Malaysia's Internal Security Act and Suppression of Political Dissent
A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

Key Sections

Background on Use of the ISA

Recent ISA Arrests

Restrictions on the Press and Academic Freedoms

Related Material

Malaysia: End Political Arrests
HRW Press Release, May 13, 2002

Malaysia: End Political Arrests
HRW Press Release, April 30, 2002

Malaysia: Release Political Detainees
HRW Press Release, April 12, 2002

Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, Prime Minister Mahathir has justified use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) on counter-terrorism grounds. The September attacks also prompted a major shift in U.S. policy regarding political repression in Malaysia. In July 2001, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, D.C. just weeks after Anwar Ibrahim's wife, Wan Azizah, met with senior State Department officials. State Department officials reportedly told the foreign minister that a meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Mahathir could take place only if there were progress on Anwar's case and in the treatment of political dissidents. But when Mahathir and Bush met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai last October, Bush made no public comment on Malaysia's human rights record or the detention of political dissidents. The White House subsequently agreed to Mahathir's visit this week, from May 13-15, to thank him for Malaysia's efforts against terrorism.

But the draconian and anachronistic ISA has long been and continues to be used as a tool to stifle peaceful political dissent. Political activists in the past have been detained under the ISA for more than a decade without trial. President Bush must make it clear that the fight against terrorism does not justify the wholesale use of the ISA to suppress dissent, to violate internationally guaranteed rights to due process and freedom from arbitrary detention, and to undermine the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Those suspected of involvement in violent acts including acts of terrorism should be charged and brought to trial under Malaysia's criminal laws.

Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA) is a preventive detention law originally enacted in the early 1960s during a national state of emergency as a temporary measure to fight a communist rebellion. Under Section 73 (1) of the ISA, police may detain any person for up to 60 days, without warrant or trial and without access to legal counsel, on suspicion that "he has acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia or any part thereof or to maintenance of essential services therein or to the economic life thereof." After 60 days, the Minister of Home Affairs can then extend the period of detention without trial for up to two years, without submitting any evidence for review by the courts, by issuing a detention order, which is renewable indefinitely.

The law has repeatedly been criticized by Malaysian human rights groups, the Malaysian Bar Council, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, and international human rights groups, which called for its repeal. The ISA's provisions violate fundamental international human rights standards, including prohibitions on arbitrary detention and guarantees of the right to due process and the right to a prompt and impartial trial.

The U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices issued on March 4, 2002, was highly critical of Malaysia's continued use of the ISA and noted that last year, "police increased their use of the ISA to arrest and detain many persons, including members of the political opposition, without charge or trial….In the latter half of the year, the Government stepped up its pro-ISA rhetoric."

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed has vigorously defended the use of the ISA, saying it has been useful in fighting insurgent groups threatening national security. In November 2000, the ruling coalition suffered a by-election defeat in Mahathir's home district in Kedah state and the government faced increasingly vocal opposition protests. Not for the first time, it used the ISA against its political opponents. Among those targeted under the ISA were minority Shi'a Muslims, supporters of jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and youth leaders in the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS, Partai Islam Se-Malaysia), although individuals linked to specific violent acts were also among those detained.

Background on Use of the ISA

The Act provides for arbitrary arrest and detention without trial for an indefinite period based on mere suspicion that one "may be likely" to commit an act deemed dangerous to national security. A detainee is, therefore, presumed guilty without trial. It further allows a detainee to be held under solitary confinement for 60 days without legal counsel.

When the Act was first adopted, it did allow for judicial review, but since then, the ISA has been amended over 20 times, and this provision has been removed. Absolute power is given to the Minister of Home Affairs to arbitrarily detain anyone, without reference to the courts.

In addition to provisions for arrest, the ISA allows for restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and expression, freedom of movement, residence and employment. It also allows for the closing of schools and educational institutions if they are used as a meeting place for an unlawful organization or for any other reason are deemed detrimental to the interests of Malaysia or the public.

Over the years, the Malaysian government has consistently used the Act for its own political purposes to detain thousands of citizens, including political opposition leaders, academicians, trade unionists, religious, social, environmental, and women's rights activists. The ISA was used to arrest political opponents of Mahathir in a major crackdown in 1987-88, as well as politicians in Sabah, east Malaysia, in 1990, whose party was considered a major rival to the ruling party, UMNO. In November 1997, ten people were arrested under the ISA for allegedly spreading Shiite teachings deemed detrimental to national security; Muslims in Malaysia are Sunnis. The ISA was used in 1998 to arrest Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and six of his political supporters. Anwar was the primary leader of opposition to Mahathir, and is currently serving a 15-year sentence following convictions in 1999 and 2000 in politically motivated trials for sodomy and corruption and abuse of power.

Former ISA detainees have testified to being subjected to severe physical and psychological torture, including allegations of physical assault, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, around-the-clock interrogation, death threats, threats of bodily harm to family members, including threats of rape and bodily harm to their children. Detainees are often kept in solitary confinement in tiny, dark cells. Prolonged torture and deprivation have led to some to sign state-manufactured "confessions" under severe duress. During the first trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, police admitted to the courts that the process of 'extracting confessions' under duress was standard practice. Currently, there are 105 ISA detainees being held in Kamunting prison camp.

Recent ISA Arrests

In April 2001, prior to a planned a demonstration marking the second anniversary of the sentencing of prisoner of conscience Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysian police detained nine opposition activists and a human rights defender under the ISA:

  • Chua Tian Chiang, Vice President, Parti Keadilan Nasional (PKN - National Justice
  • Party, known as Keadilan);
  • Mohd Ezam Mohd Noor, National Youth Chief, PKN;
  • Haji Saari Sungip, PKN activist;
  • Hishamuddin Rais, media columnist and social activist;
  • Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Director of Free Anwar Campaign;
  • N. Gobala Krishnan, Secretary General, PKN Youth;
  • Abdul Ghani Harun, PKN Youth Central Committee member;
  • Dr Badrul Amin Baharom, PKN Youth leader;
  • Lokman Nor Adam, Executive Secretary, PKN Youth Wing;
  • Badaruddin Ismail, human rights defender.

Five of the activists belonged to the opposition PKN party, headed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah. The detainees were apparently also planning to submit a memorandum to the Malaysian Commission on Human Rights regarding Anwar's trial. Dr Badrul Amin Baharom and Lokman Nor Adam, leading members of the PKN, were arrested on April 20, 2001. Dr. Badrul Amin Baharom was released on November 2, but tight restrictions were placed on his movements and he was prohibited from speaking publicly. He broke the restrictions and was rearrested on January 31, 2002. On 26 April 26, 2001 Malaysian police arrested human rights defender Badaruddin Ismail, who is a member of the secretariat of a leading human rights organization, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram, Voice of the Malaysian People). He had been assisting families of detainees and monitoring the National Human Rights Commission enquiry into police brutality. No reason for his arrest has been given.

On May 30, in an unusual and courageous ruling, Judge Hishamuddin Yunus ordered the release of two ISA detainees on a writ of habeas corpus (an order that a prisoner to be brought before a court to determine whether his detention is lawful), and suggested that the parliament should review and either scrap or amend the ISA to reduce its potential for abuse.

In July 2001, the authorities detained two student activists, Khairul Anuar Ahmad Zainuddin and Mohamad Fuad Mohamad Ikhwan, under the ISA, the former for twenty-three days and the latter for ten days. Also in July, the government banned all political rallies stating that they would undermine the country's security. When the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), an opposition party making inroads since the 1999 general election, subsequently planned a series of meetings to protest the policy, police refused to grant permits and dispersed those who attempted to attend.

On August 2-4, police detained another ten people under the ISA, all of whom were affiliated with or supporters of PAS, including four prominent youth leaders. The authorities said the ten belonged to a group (known by the initials KMM) that planned to overthrow the government, sometimes labeling the group the Malaysian Militant Group and sometimes the Malaysian Mujahedin Group.

One of those detained, Nik Adli Nik Aziz, was the son of a leading PAS official. The authorities alleged he had received military training in Afghanistan and had learned bomb making from Muslim rebels in the Philippines, but he denied this and PAS leaders emphasized that they used only peaceful, democratic means in their struggle against the ruling coalition. As of May, most of them were still detained under two-year detention orders.

The police have claimed that the opposition PKN party activists were planning violent street demonstrations to overthrow the government although no evidence supporting this accusation has ever been presented before the courts. Many non-governmental organizations believe the real reason for the arrests is to suppress legitimate peaceful dissent against the arrest and sentencing of Anwar Ibrahim. The Malaysian Human Rights Commission has repeatedly said that detention without trial under the Internal Security Act violates fundamental human rights, and if the detainees were not charged and tried in an open court they should be immediately released.

Following their initial detention, the families of five of the detainees--Mohammad Ezam Mohd Noor, Haji Saari Sungip, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Dr Badrul Amin Baharom and Lokman Nor Adam--expressed concern that while the detainees did not show signs of physical assault, they were unwilling to speak of their interrogation, and returned repeatedly to the subject of the safety of their families. To date, two of the detainees have been freed pending their Federal Court case (Gobala Krishnan Abdul Ghani Harun) and six (the "ISA Six") remain under two-year detention order in Kamunting Detention Center in Northern Perak state: Badrul Amin, Chua Tian Chang, Hishamuddin Rais, Lokman Adam, Mohd Ezam Mohd Nor, and Saari Sungib.

On April 10, 2002, the six ISA detainees observed the one-year anniversary of their detention by beginning a hunger strike to protest their detention. The strike was suspended on April 21, 2002. The detainees are allowed weekly family visits.

Restrictions on the press and academic freedoms

In addition to the ISA detentions, the Mahathir government has suppressed peaceful political opposition by restricting media and academic freedoms.

Throughout 2001, Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition, led by Prime Minister Mahathir, sought to broaden already tight controls on the press through what the US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists called "coercion, ownership changes, verbal bullying, and backroom personnel moves." The Printing Presses and Publications Act presently requires all publications to obtain an annual press license to operate, which can be withdrawn without judicial review. A special office in the Home Affairs Ministry censors all foreign publications and has repeatedly delayed publications deemed critical of the government. For example, in March 2001, censors delayed release of both Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek editions chronicling the growing opposition to Mahathir and signs of political unrest.

The government asserts control through its ownership of virtually all major media, either through the ruling National Front parties or Mahathir's allies. In May, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a senior partner in the ruling National Front coalition, bought out and dismissed the senior editorial staff of the two major Chinese-language dailies, Nanyang Press and Nanyang Siang Pau, effectively bringing the nation's most independent papers under government control. The takeover left only one independent Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Po.

The Internet, which the government had pledged to spare from censorship, has also begun to come under government pressure. The government stepped up pressure on the online news daily after it was alleged that the site had received start-up funding from a foundation controlled by U.S. businessman George Soros, whom Mahathir has branded an enemy of his country's financial system and responsible for the 1997 financial crisis. Although Malaysiakini denied the report, Mahathir told the nation that "loyal Malaysians" should stop reading Malaysiakini and barred Malaysiakini reporters from attending government press conferences on the grounds that "their credibility is doubtful." On May 23, the deputy home affairs minister told parliament that the government was monitoring "every article" published by to ensure that its writings did not upset public order. Throughout the year, other government officials threatened that the site would be prosecuted if its reporting "endangered national security." In May 2001, the prime minister's office announced that laws were being prepared to require online journalists to observe the same severe restrictions that impede the rest of the media.

Civil servants are required to take an oath of loyalty to king, country and government. Academics and undergraduate students are also now required to take the pledge. The pledge, Akujanji (I Pledge), is an oath of good conduct and requires signatories to heed all existing and future government directives and orders. An explanatory note in a circular on the pledge reads: "An officer who goes against or criticizes a government policy will undermine the integrity and stability of the civil service as a whole."

The pledge is clearly intended to contain political activity among civil servants, academics and students. In October 2001, sixty-one university lecturers alleged to be engaged in anti-government activities were warned, transferred or fired. Civil servants are reportedly divided over the government's September 1998 arrest of former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, which sparked the reform movement. Last year, soon after Anwar's arrest, 10 reform activists and two student activists were detained under the ISA. The government has alleged that university student associations are controlled by the PAS. Mahathir has publicly admitted that the aim of the pledge is to check "poisoning of the minds" of students so they "stick to the original purpose of entering universities to gain knowledge and not to indulge in anti-government activities."