(New York) - The Malaysian government should order the immediate release of five Hindu Rights Action Force leaders detained under the Internal Security Act, Human Rights Watch said today. Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA), which permits indefinite detention without charge or trial, has long been used against peaceful political and rights activists.
On December 13, the government arrested Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) leaders P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan, V. Ganabatirau, R. Kenghadharan, and T. Vasanthakumar under the ISA. Hindraf protests what they believe are discriminatory government economic policies against Malaysia’s Indian population, and on November 25 held a rally in Kuala Lumpur drawing between 10,000 and 30,000 participants.
“Holding Hindraf leaders under the ISA is an attempt to frighten into silence a minority community concerned about its rights,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If laws were broken, then the offenders should be charged and properly tried, not detained indefinitely.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who is also minister of internal security, reportedly said that Hindraf leaders were undermining national security because they threaten racial and religious harmony among Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities. On December 15, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan told the media, without elaboration, that the five detained activist leaders “clearly have links with international terrorist organizations and they are involved in activities that amount to inciting racial hatred.” Three of the five detained leaders have also been charged with sedition.
Hindraf’s efforts to obtain police permission for the November 25 rally were rebuffed by the Kuala Lumpur police, which refused to issue a permit. Asserting that Malaysia’s constitution guaranteed freedom of assembly and expression, Hindraf proceeded with the demonstration. Given the early morning march, some of those planning to participate gathered during the evening of November 24 at Batu Caves, a sacred Hindu site some seven miles from Kuala Lumpur, where they mingled with worshippers. At 4 a.m., police officers used tear gas and water cannons – it is unclear if they broadcasted warnings or dispersal orders – against those in the temple. Scores were detained. Later that morning, a rally in Kuala Lumpur proceeded peacefully until police told demonstrators to move on. When they refused, police used tear gas, chemically laced water, and batons to disperse them. Protestors lobbed the canisters back at police.
In the weeks since the protest, in addition to the sedition charges filed against the three leaders, the government charged 31 demonstrators with attempted murder after a policeman was allegedly injured outside Batu caves. The murder charges were dropped on December 17 and all 31 were released on bail. However, 25 members of the group still face charges for causing mischief and unlawful assembly.
Human Rights Watch said that elections are expected in early 2008.
“The upcoming elections will be an important opportunity for Malaysians to have their voices heard on a range of issues,” said Pearson. “The government must allow all voices to be heard, including those from marginalized communities like Hindraf who are seeking equal access to basic rights.”
For many years, Human Rights Watch has called for the Malaysian government to abolish the ISA . All persons now held under the ISA – 87 in September 2007 – should be freed or charged and tried under conditions that meet international standards of due process.
Malaysia, a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), signed the ASEAN charter on November 21, 2007. Both under the ASEAN charter and also as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Malaysia has pledged to “promote and protect” human rights. Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to honor its pledges to those international institutions as well as uphold its human rights obligations under international law by abolishing the ISA.