Background Briefing: Arrests in Malaysia

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on September 20 under the Internal Security Act, a law that Human Rights Watch believes to be a violation of basic human rights. Since his sacking on September 2, many of his supporters have also been arrested. The background to the case follows.

Background

By September 20, eleven persons associated with former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had been arrested on unspecified charges, some apparently connected to allegations against Anwar of sexual misconduct, corruption and possible breaches of national security. Most were subsequently released, but some key associates of Anwar remain in detention under Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act or ISA, a law which permits lengthy detention without charge or trial. Student supporters from the Mara Institute of Technology (IT) were also threatened with expulsion and blacklisting from government educational institutions for being involved in Anwar's campaigns for political reform. Civil servants were also warned not to participate in political movements or activities.

Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed on September 2 when he refused to resign from his government positions after being accused of "inappropriate behavior" following the publication of the book entitled 50 Dalil Kenapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM (50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister) in May. The book contains graphic sexual allegations as well as accusations of corruption against Anwar, who obtained a court injunction on June 17 to restrain the author, publisher, and their agents from publishing, distributing or reprinting the book. Anwar made a defamation complaint against the author, Khalid Jafri, and in August, police charged Jafri with malicious publishing of false news. In September, the judge who had banned further distribution of a book was transferred, leading to fears among Malaysian lawyers about possible threats to the independence of the judiciary.

The book was circulated during the annual meeting of the UMNO party in June. It was during that meeting that Prime Minister Mahathir apparently began strengthening his control over the party, despite a public attack against cronyism and nepotism by an Anwar ally named Zahid Hamidi. Observers had speculated for months that Anwar's position was in jeopardy as forces close to the deputy prime minister appeared increasingly critical of Mahathir's style of governing and economic policies. In July, a visit by the Indonesian opposition leader Amien Rais led critics to compare events in Malaysia with those in Indonesia, where allegations of cronyism and economic and political dissatisfaction contributed to President Suharto's downfall. Domestic critics accused Mahathir of tolerating cronyism between corporate and government interests, and the international financial press and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded greater transparency in government and UMNO-managed enterprises. The editors of both Utusan Malaysia,a Malay-language newspaper and magazine group, and of Berita Harian, another prominent Malay newspaper -- both Anwar-linked -- were allegedly forced to resign in July because of the prominence their papers had given to the transparency issue.

Soon after his dismissal Anwar publicly accused Prime Minister Mahathir of "paranoia" and resistance to political change. He said that he was fired because of his efforts to warn Mahathir of the public anger over corruption and cronyism in Malaysia and growing popular demands for reform. Disagreements between the two over economic policy had also become increasingly apparent over the past few months, with Anwar's dismissal coming one day after Mahathir announced plans to restrict foreign exchange transactions in order to prevent further currency devaluation.

Anwar's dismissal extended to all his other positions held in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, including Cabinet committee posts and the National Economic Action Council (NEAC) deputy chairmanship. On September 4 he was expelled from UMNO; where he served as the party's deputy president.

Recent Arrests
(September 21, 1998)

Anwar was arrested from his home on the evening of September 20 by police armed with assault rifles and tear gas after some 35,000 supporters marched to Prime Minister Mahathir's house demanding his resignation. Also arrested following the demonstration were ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) youth chief Zahid Hamidi, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) President Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman, his deputy, Mukhtar Redhuan, Secretary-General Shaharuddin Badaruddin, Deputy National President Abdul Halim Ismail, and Roslan Kassim, an UMNO youth leader from a northern state who was in Anwar's house during a press conference.

On September 21, police announced that the seven had been detained under the Internal Security Act for actions prejudicial to national security and were under investigation for their roles in Sunday's "unrest, vandalism, illegal assembly and public disorder." On September 15 police threatened to arrest Anwar if he continued to address public meetings without a permit (as deputy prime minister he did not need one). A meeting on September 12 in northern Malaysia reportedly drew more than 40,000 people.

Anwar Ibrahim's adopted brother, Sukma Darmawan, was arrested on September 6. Police reportedly confirmed his arrest, but the grounds on which he was detained were not made public at that time. Since then the press has contained allegations of his involvement in acts of sodomy with Anwar; sodomy is illegal under Malaysian law. Darmawan, a businessman, is also mentioned in the book, 50 Dalil Kenapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM. Similar charges have been made against Munawar Anees, a Pakistani national with permanent resident status in Malaysia and the US who was was detained under the ISA on September 14; Munawar was the editor of the now defunct Periodica Islamica, an English language quarterly which was published by Berita Publishing of the New Straits Times Group; he had reportedly written speeches for Anwar. A former Finance Ministry official was reportedly arrested later the same day, under Section 117 of the Penal Code which allows police to detain persons during investigations. On September 15, authorities detained Mohamed Azmin Ali, Anwar Ibrahim's former private secretary, also under section 117. Anwar has charged that authorities warned Mohamed's family members not to tell anyone of his arrest, not even his lawyers.

Earlier, in August, police arrested a businessman friend of Anwar's, S. Nallakaruppan, under the ISA for unlawful possession of ammunition. Affidavits filed at the High Court by the Attorney General and an officer of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) alleged that when police searched the home of S. Nallakaruppan in July while investigating the accusations made in the book, they found, besides the ammunition, sensitive letters and classified documents belonging to Anwar. The affidavits accused Nallakaruppan arranging some of Anwar's sexual liaisons and suggested that because he traveled abroad with Anwar, he may have been in the position to leak official secrets. Nallakaruppan has vehemently denied the charges and filed a complaint alleging harassment and mistreatment in police detention and requesting transfer to another facility.

The Malaysian human rights organization, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), has called for the release of persons detained under the ISA. "The entitlement to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial court is a basic right that belongs to everyone. The ISA is an explicit denunciation of that right," a SUARAM statement read.


Internal Security Act (ISA)
(September 21, 1998)

Malaysia's Internal Security Act provides for preventive detention 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 likely to act in "any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia." The act also allows for restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and expression, freedom of movement, residence and employment. It 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. It 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 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. In recent years, the law has also been used to arrest producers of false identity documents and work permits for foreign workers in Malaysia.

Malaysia: Official Secrets Act (OSA)

(September 21, 1998)

Malaysia's Official Secrets Act is a broadly-worded law which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, as well as significant lesser penalties for the actions associated with the wrongful collection, possession or communication of official information. Any public officer can declare any material an official secret -- a certification which cannot be questioned in court . The act allows for arrest and detention without a warrant, and substantially reverses the burden of proof. It states that "until the contrary is proven," any of the activities proscribed under the act will be presumed to have been undertaken "for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of Malaysia." It is not necessary for the authorities to show that the accused person was guilty of a particular act, and states that even if no act is proved, the accused person may still be convicted on the basis of "the circumstances of the case, his conduct or his known character...".

Malaysia: Other Important Court Cases in Malaysia
(September 21, 1998)

 

The Malaysian government continues to use broad legislation and lengthy, expensive court proceedings to punish its critics and control free speech.

Lim Guan Eng

On August 25, 1998 outspoken opposition parliamentarian Lim Guan Eng was jailed after he lost an appeal before the Federal Court. The Court upheld his sentence of two concurrent eighteen-month prison terms for sedition and malicious publishing of false news in connection with statements he made and published in 1995 accusing the Malaysia's Attorney General of mishandling allegations of statutory rape of a schoolgirl made against the Chief Minister of Malacca.

Irene Fernandez

Irene Fernandez, also accused of malicious publishing, has been on trial for more than two years. Fernandez, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based women's rights organization called Tenaganita or "Women's Force," faces the possibility of three years' imprisonment and substantial fines for publishing a short memorandum in July 1995 on abuses in immigration detention centers in Malaysia that the government claimed contained errors. The abuses cited included beatings, sexual assaults, extortion, inadequate food and water, unsanitary toilet facilities and poor medical care.

Param Cumaraswamy

Param Cumaraswamy, a Malaysian attorney who serves as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, faces a $25 million defamation suit brought by two Malaysian companies for a 1997 interview with the London-based magazine International Commercial Litigation, in which he commented on his investigations into allegations of corporate interference with the Malaysian judiciary. The companies also requested a restraining order barring him from "speaking or publishing or causing to be published . . . words defamatory of the plaintiffs." The Malaysian government refused to recognize the immunity granted him in his capacity as Special Rapporteur by the United Nations Secretary General. In August 1998 the case was referred to the International Court of Justice.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert, the Malaysia bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to three months in jail on September 4, 1997 for a story he wrote in January which published details of a civil suit brought by the wife of an Appeals Court Judge against the International School of Kuala Lumpur because it dropped her son from its debating team. Hiebert had written about the case in an article "See You in Court" which commented on growing litigiousness in Malaysia. The article noted that the plaintiff was the wife of a judge and that the case appeared to move through the judicial system with unusual speed.

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