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WPost: Malaysia Reins In Opposition Political Activists
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

12/8/2001 11:52 pm Sun

Malaysia Reins In Opposition Political Activists, Rights Groups Decry Law Allowing Indefinite Jailing

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, August 12, 2001; Page A17

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Two unmarked police cars cut off Nagapan Gobalkrishnan as he drove away from a political rally after delivering a blistering speech urging Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to resign.

"You have to come with us," one of the officers told him. "We have to ask you some questions."

When he got to the police station that April night, the commanding officer told Gobalkrishnan that he was being detained under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that allows people to be held without trial for as long as the government wants. Police officials accused him and seven other leaders of the opposition National Justice Party of planning to use "militant means" to overthrow Mahathir, Asia's longest-serving leader.

For the next seven weeks, Gobalkrishnan was held in solitary confinement and denied access to a lawyer or his family. He said he was subjected to lengthy interrogations, often ending with fierce beatings, that focused not on the allegations of political violence, which he denied, but on the internal operations of his party and a large anti-government demonstration he had been organizing.

"It was all a sham," growled Gobalkrishnan, 41, a loquacious veteran political activist. "They arrested us on these false charges to intimidate us -- and the rest of the opposition."

Rival politicians and human rights activists contend that Mahathir is resorting to a variety of draconian measures to crack down on a fast-growing opposition movement that has become the most potent threat to his governing coalition in the two decades he has been in power. Mahathir's government has ordered a wave of arrests under the security act and he has banned all public rallies, pulling thousands of police officers off their regular jobs to break up any opposition gathering of more than four people.

"Our democracy is being emasculated because he is afraid that he's not able to maintain his iron grip on power," said Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of the National Justice Party. The party was formed by the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, the popular former deputy prime minister who was jailed on s###my charges that many here believe were fabricated.

Earlier this month, the government detained 10 more people under the security act, several of whom were active members of the largest opposition group, the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. Officials accused the detainees, who allegedly were trained in Afghanistan, of involvement in a series of bombings, robberies and the murder of a politician. Party officials deny the charges and say they were arrested because of their opposition activities.

The arrests and the ban on assemblies have ratcheted up political tensions in this Southeast Asian country of 23 million people, raising fears of a broader opposition crackdown and increasing religious and ethnic polarization in a country that has long been regarded as a model of multiethnic harmony.

Although Mahathir's secular-oriented coalition holds three-quarters of the seats in Parliament, opposition parties have made significant inroads in recent years. In the last national election, the Islamic party tripled its seats in the legislature and captured two state governments.

Since then, opposition groups have continued a campaign to persuade people to defect from Mahathir's party by capitalizing on widespread disgust with his close relationship with business tycoons, his demonization of Anwar, his manipulation of the judicial system and his combative style. The Islamic party also has tried to convince the dominant Malay population, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, that Mahathir is not conservative enough on religious issues.

Though there are no reliable opinion polls in Malaysia, political analysts said the strategy appears to be working. By all accounts, it has made Mahathir increasingly nervous.

"The aggressiveness of the opposition is causing considerable concern," said Zulkifli Mohd Alwi, an official with Mahathir's party, the United Malays National Organization.

The prime minister and his associates deny that the arrests were an attempt to squelch his rivals. They contend that the National Justice members and those affiliated with the Islamic party intended to resort to violence to topple the government.

"Some even tried to make hand grenades, find weapons and buy guns from other countries to hold demonstrations and riots all the time until the government was ousted," Mahathir said of the National Justice leaders who were detained. "We cannot allow that."

But the government has not provided any evidence of those claims. Under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, known as the ISA, officials do not need to file charges or get a judge's consent to hold a person incommunicado for 60 days. After that, suspects deemed to be an ongoing risk to national security can be incarcerated indefinitely by the home affairs minister. Legal specialists said Malaysia's law is among the world's most repressive security acts.

Lawyers representing the National Justice Party detainees argue that the government's failure to provide any evidence of the allegedly violent acts being planned suggest that the claims were concocted. "These are just trumped-up reasons offered to the public to legitimize the use of the ISA," said attorney Sivarasa Rasiah. "The real purpose was to blunt the growing strength of the opposition movement."

Sivarasa said his clients told him that they were interrogated about the party's organization and finances, not terrorism. They also said police officials urged them to renounce their membership in the opposition and join Mahathir's party, Sivarasa said. "This was all about politics," he said.

That was the same conclusion Gobalkrishnan came to a few hours into his 51-day detention, when he was interrogated for the first time.

"They never asked me any questions about terrorism, or the grenades and guns and rocket launchers they said we were going to use," he said. "They wanted to know about the inner workings of the party."

Then, he said, his questioners "wanted me to say that I had sex with women other than my wife, women in the party. They wanted to portray women in the party as loose women."

Political analysts and diplomats said they were surprised by the police's apparent interest in the sex lives of opposition members, noting that the government's graphic allegations of s###my involving Anwar, which resulted in a conviction despite a raft of contradictory evidence, wound up hurting Mahathir's reputation more than Anwar's in the eyes of many Malaysians.

Gobalkrishnan attributes his release, along with one other party activist, to a sympathetic judge who bristled at the government's failure to present any evidence of their alleged crimes. Six other party leaders, whose appeal to be released was denied by another judge, remain in custody. Mahathir's deputy recently ordered them transferred to a prison camp after signing an order allowing them to be detained for as long as two years.

Attorneys for the six have appealed to the country's top court. In a surprising procedural victory, the country's chief justice brushed aside government objections and ruled this past week that he would consider evidence about the interrogations.

Party lawyers and rights activists are hoping the chief justice, Mohamad Dzaiddin Abdullah, who has said he wants to restore the "image" of the judiciary, will put Mahathir on notice that the law cannot be used to target political opponents.

In recent months, the judiciary has been showing signs of renewed independence. In the most notable example, a judge in June nullified the results of a state election that had been won by a member of Mahathir's ruling coalition. The judge said that in 1999, when hearings on the case began, he had been "given a directive" by a "superior" to dismiss it.

"The judges now feel they are a little freer," said Param Cumaraswamy, a Malaysian lawyer who serves as a U.N. special overseer of judicial independence. "With the new chief justice, the climate is more conducive for them to judge cases on the facts and the law without taking into account outside pressures."

The prime minister said recently that his government "does not apologize to anyone" for the arrests, which he said were conducted "for the sake of the safety of the country's majority."

Political analysts and diplomats said the arrest of the 10 people alleged to have links to Islamic freedom fighters in Afghanistan could be an attempt to deflect criticism from Western governments over the security act. "He is trying to portray this as a crackdown on Muslim extremists," said a Western diplomat. "He's hoping it will play well in the United States and Europe."

But the diplomat questioned the prime minister's claims. "We haven't seen any evidence that really shows what these guys were doing other than working for the opposition."

Some of Mahathir's allies have expressed concern that the detentions could backfire, emboldening instead of intimidating opposition leaders like Gobalkrishnan.

"Mahathir hasn't frightened me," Gobalkrishnan said. "I'm going to continue the fight even if it means going back to jail."

2001 The Washington Post Company