Human Rights Watch today called for the immediate release of seven Malaysian opposition political figures who were arrested April 10-11 under Malaysia's notorious Internal Security Act (ISA).

The seven were arrested just days before the second anniversary of the sentencing of imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. On April 14, 1999, Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison, and, each year since then, supporters have planned rallies to mark the anniversary, known in Malaysia as "Black 14." Malaysian authorities have indicated that more arrests may follow in the coming days.

"This is political bullying pure and simple," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The Internal Security Act is tailor-made for authoritarian leaders who want to lock up political opponents."

Human Rights Watch, in its global review of rights developments in 2000, noted that the human rights situation in Malaysia had deteriorated, largely because of Prime Minister Mahathir's determination to crush his political rivals.

All of the seven who have been arrested are well-established opposition figures and most are members of the opposition party Keadilian, founded by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah. Those arrested are: Tian Chua, 37, Keadilian vice-president; Saari Sungib, 43, a member of the Keadilian's policy making council; Ezam Mohamad Noor, 34, Keadilian youth leader; N. Gobalakrishnan, 41, Keadilan youth secretary; activists Abdul Ghani Harun, 36, and Hishamuddin Rais, 50; and Raja Petra Kamarudin, 49, director of the Free Anwar campaign.

Malaysian authorities have said that the seven currently being detained were arrested "because there was information about their involvement in an activity which could endanger the security of the country," an apparent reference to the planned rallies. According to local reports, Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Norian Mai further alleged at an April 11 press conference that the detainees "were planning militant actions to topple the government" and implied that they had been involved in trying to obtain explosives. He profferred no evidence to support these extreme allegations and Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA) requires none.

The ISA allows the detention of suspects for up to two years, with the possibility of renewal every two years. Any police officer may, without a warrant, arrest and detain anyone he has "reason to believe" has acted or is likely to act in "any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia." For the first sixty days, detainees may be held without access to lawyers.

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. The right of ISA detainees to be fairly charged and tried is restricted not only by the provisions in the ISA for indefinitely renewable detention without trial, but also by a June 1989 amendment removing the jurisdiction of courts to hear habeas corpus petitions from ISA detainees.

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 law has also been used to arrest scores of individuals believed to have facilitated the illegal entry of foreign workers into Malaysia. In 1998, ISA was the basis for the initial arrest of Anwar and six of his political supporters.