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The September arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and some of his close associates under the Internal Security Act (ISA) marked a sharp turn toward repression in Malaysia as the once booming economy went into decline. Tens of thousands of foreign migrant workers, most of them Indonesian and Bangladeshi, were arrested and sent home during the year, amid allegations of severe overcrowding in immigration camps and police brutality during deportation. In some cases, individuals with a valid claim to refugee status were deported with the migrants. Restrictions on freedom of expression continued, with the trial of migrant rights’ activist Irene Fernandez on charges of malicious reporting entering its third year. The government was quick to punish any signs of what it saw as communal incitement.

Human Rights Developments
The arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, once heir-apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir, dwarfed all other news. A power struggle between the two that had been building for several years intensified as the economic crisis worsened, with Anwar increasingly taking a pro-free market approach sympathetic to foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund, and Mahathir blaming the West and Western currency speculators in particular for his country’s economic plight. By mid-year, borrowing the reform slogans from neighboring Indonesia, Anwar’s supporters within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party were making corruption and nepotism major political issues, with Mahathir the unstated target.

In May, 50 Dalil Kenapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM (50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister), a book containing graphic sexual allegations as well as accusations of corruption against Anwar, was published in Kuala Lumpur. In early June, the book was circulated at the annual meeting of UMNO. It was during that meeting that Mahathir apparently began strengthening his control over the party and making moves against Anwar. Days later, Anwar obtained a court injunction to prevent further distribution of the book and filed a defamation complaint against the author.

In July, a visit by the Indonesian opposition leader Amien Rais led to more pointed comparisons of Malaysia and Indonesia. Domestic critics accused Mahathir of tolerating cronyism, and the international financial press and the IMF demanded greater transparency in government and UMNO-managed enterprises. The editors of Utusan Malaysia , a Malay-language newspaper and magazine group, and Berita Harian , another prominent Malay newspaper, were forced to resign in July, allegedly because of the prominence their papers had given to the transparency issue. Both were supporters of Anwar.

In August, police charged the author of the 50 Reasons book with malicious publishing of false news. But in September, the judge who had banned the book’s distribution—a pro-Anwar decision—was transferred, raising concerns among Malaysian lawyers about a judiciary whose independence was already problematic.

Mahathir formally dismissed Anwar on September 2, accusing him of precisely the “inappropriate behavior” detailed in the 50 Reasons book. Anwar claimed he had been fired because of his efforts to warn Mahathir of public anger over corruption and cronyism and growing popular demands for reform. Anwar’s dismissal extended to all his positions: deputy prime minister, finance minister, and deputy chair of the National Economic Action Council (NEAC). On September 4 he was expelled from UMNO.

Between September 6 and 15, several close associates of Anwar, including his adopted brother, were arrested under the ISA, some of them charged with sodomy or other forms of “sexual misconduct” banned by Malaysian law. The allegations had all been outlined in the 50 Reasons book. Earlier, in August, police had arrested an Anwar business associate, S. Nallakaruppan, under the ISA for unlawful possession of ammunition. Affidavits later filed at the High Court also accused Nallakaruppan of arranging some of Anwar’s sexual liaisons and suggested that because they traveled together abroad, Nallakruppan may have had access to official secrets.

On the evening of September 20 Anwar was arrested at his home by police, after some 35,000 of his supporters marched todemand the prime minister’s resignation. Also arrested following the demonstration were six others including UMNO youth leader Zahid Hamidi and several officers of the Malaysia Islamic Youth Organization (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM). All were detained under the ISA, but they were freed unconditionally on September 30.

When Anwar appeared for the first time in public on September 29 to be formally charged on ten counts of corruption and “unnatural sex,” he had a black eye and a bruised right hand and accused his captors of torturing him. Anwar’s injuries caused international outrage. Prime Minister Mahathir accused Anwar of beating himself, while the public prosecutor announced on September 30 that Anwar’s claims of ill-treatment would be investigated. On October 14, Anwar was released from ISA detention but remanded to prison to await trial. He was expected to be tried on four of the corruption charges from November 2 to 14.

Hundreds of Anwar supporters were arrested in the weeks following his arrest as demonstrations against the government increased. The government banned all meetings to discuss reformasi or reform, the word used as a slogan both by Anwar and by Indonesian students in their effort to bring down Soeharto.

Anwar’s arrest drew worldwide attention to the continued use of the ISA, long used by the Mahathir government and its predecessors against political opponents. In recent years, it had been used less to punish free expression than publication of false passports and travel documents for undocumented migrant workers. Of 198 people known to be in detention under the ISA during the year, the overwhelming majority were detained for facilitating the illegal entry of foreign workers into Malaysia.

The Malaysian government continued to use other broadly worded laws to punish its critics. On August 25, outspoken opposition parliamentarian Lim Guan Eng was jailed after the federal court upheld his conviction for sedition and malicious publishing of false news in connection with statements he had made in 1995. He had accused the attorney general of mishandling a case involving the chief minister of Malacca’s alleged statutory rape of a schoolgirl.

Irene Fernandez, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based advocacy organization called Tenaganita (Women’s Force), continued to face the possibility of three years’ imprisonment as her trial on charges of malicious publishing entered its third year. Fernandez had published a short memorandum in July 1995 on abuses in immigration detention centers. The government maintained that the report was inaccurate.

In August, a case involving Param Cumaraswamy, a Malaysian attorney serving as U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, was referred to the International Court of Justice. He had been sued in 1997 for sixty million ringit in the Malaysian courts after he had alleged corporate interference in the Malaysian judiciary. He made the allegations in connection with his work as special rapporteur, and the Malaysian government refused to recognize the immunity granted him by the United Nations secretary-general.

The government put a high priority on preventing communal violence and punishing any activities seen as a possible incitement to violence. In February, the conversion of a Muslim woman named Nur’aishah to Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic man caused a furor and demands from conservative Muslims that the ISA be used against apostates. Most newspapers voluntarily refrained from printing any stories about it, but the police inspector-general also warned that publicity given such incidents could be inflammatory. Nur’aishah alleged that Malaysian police helped her family, who were opposed to the marriage, abduct her from her lawyer’s office; they also arrested the lawyer but later released him. The couple was forced to flee Malaysia.

On September 24, four people were charged with incitement under Section 505 (b) of the penal code for spreading rumors on the Internet about communal riots. They were to be tried separately later in the year or in 1999. On August 7, “news” appeared on the Internet, which is widely used in Malaysia, about riots in the Chow Kit area of Kuala Lumpur. The riots were said to have involved attacks by Indonesian migrant workers armed with machetes against ethnic Chinese or Malays. (There were different versions of the reports.) Given the attention in the Malaysian press to anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, the “news” set off a wave of panic-buying in Kuala Lumpur and traffic jams as people tried to get out. In fact, there were no riots, and police later detained four people suspected of circulating the stories. On August 17, after the four, all ethnic Chinese, had been arrested, the attorney general warned that anyone who disseminated false information over the Internet could be charged under a number of laws, including the Sedition Act, Defamation Act, Broadcasting Act as well as the new Communications and Multimedia Act. He added that the police also had the right to detain offenders under the Internal Security Act without consulting the attorney general. According to the Internet service provider, Mimos Bhd, the four had pretended to be members of different ethnic groups depending on the ethnicity of the recipients of their messages. The government had asked Mimos to help police with their investigation into the source of the rumors, and Mimos obliged by providing confidential identification details of the four. It told the press that it would not invade the privacy of its users without specific reasons, such as a “request by authorities.” The four faced a maximum two years’ jail or fine or both if convicted.

The Malaysian government remained extremely sensitive toward anything that might cause an outbreak of ethnic violence. In mid-March the government intervened to settle a conflict between Muslims and Hindus in Penang, where Hindus had tried to build a temple within twenty meters of a mosque. Over 180 people were arrested when the conflict was at its height, but most were questioned and released; some forty remained in detention in the weeks immediately following.

On September 21 the British Broadcasting Corporation and Independent Television News (U.K.) protested Malaysia’s jamming of broadcast signals to prevent them from relaying coverage of demonstrations over the arrest of sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Other international broadcast companies, including New Zealand Broadcasting, were also reportedly stopped from broadcasting riot pictures.

The economic downturn became an official rationale for the ongoing campaign to arrest and deport undocumented migrants. Between January 1 and April 30, the Home Ministry reported 30,000 deportations. On March 26, eight migrants and a policemanwere killed in a riot sparked by migrants from the Indonesian special region of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, who were protesting their imminent deportation. Riots also occurred in three other camps where Acehnese inmates were detained. Some 545 Acehnese were deported shortly thereafter, some of whom had been acknowledged by UNHCR as refugees with a valid fear of persecution in Indonesia; some suffered serious injuries, including gunshot wounds, when police tried to break up the protest. Malaysian NGOs and international press were threatened with lawsuits for reporting allegations of police abuse during deportation operations. On March 28, UNHCR officially (and unsuccessfully) requested the Malaysian government to stop deporting Acehnese and to grant access to the immigration centers. On March 30, twelve Acehnese were among fourteen migrants who forced their way into the UNHCR compound in Kuala Lumpur demanding protection; all had escaped from the Lenggeng immigration detention center in Malacca during the March 26 riots. On April 10, a group of thirty-five Acehnese, many of whom were escapees from Lenggeng, entered the U.S., Swiss, French, and Royal Brunei diplomatic compounds in Kuala Lumpur to demand protection. The latter three embassies called the police, and twenty-seven Acehnese were arrested. The governments in question ignored international protests and demands that, at the least, all be permitted interviews with UNHCR. The U.S. allowed the eight who had entered its embassy compound to stay until third-country resettlement was found. By September, these eight, together with the fourteen who had entered the UNHCR compound, had all departed for Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.





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