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Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
Malaysia's fearsome security law
Anti-ISA protests
About 200 protesters called last month for an end to ISA
By Simon Ingram in Kuala Lumpur

The open front door of Bahirah Tajul Ariff's Kuala Lumpur home frames a poster bearing the image of the jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The former deputy prime minister is depicted in familiarly defiant pose, with clenched fist raised.

[The police] tried to force me to confess to having had sexual relationships with other women

Fred opposition leader Gobalakrishnan Nagapan
On the living room wall inside hang photographs of another imprisoned opposition icon: Bahirah's husband, Ezam Mohamed Noor.

Ezam - a senior figure in the opposition Keadilan (National Justice) party - was arrested in April, along with nine other leading politicians under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The government of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said the men had been plotting a violent rebellion against the state.

ISA facts
Enacted in 1960
Targets any person who "has acted, is about to act, or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia"
Police can detain anyone for up to 60 days without trial
No access to lawyer during this period
Further detention up to 2 years on approval of Home Affairs Minister
After being held for weeks without charge and without access to lawyers or family, Ezam was ordered detained for up to two years at a remote detention centre in northern Malaysia.

"To me, this shows that Mahathir is in crisis," Bahirah told the BBC in an interview. "He is very weak and he is taking this action just to isolate my husband from the public."

International support

Believing only outside pressure can win the release of Ezam and the other five politicians held with him (four were ordered released by the courts), Bahirah has joined a growing campaign to abolish the ISA.

Wan Azizah
Wan Azizah has taken the cause to an international audience
Signature campaigns and petitions are being organised, along with political rallies condemning the government's use of the law.

The campaign has international support. The US State Department said the recent ISA detentions "seemed intended to prevent the detainees, against whom there are no criminal charges, from exercising internationally recognised rights of free speech, political expression and assembly."

The European Parliament has voiced similar concerns.

Personal courage

Bahirah and the wives of the other detainees made their personal mark on the anti-ISA campaign at last month's general assembly of the ruling Umno party in Kuala Lumpur, at which she managed to present Dr Mahathir with a letter urging Ezam's release.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed wipes his tears after delivering his closing speech
Bahirah's intervention at the Umno conference did not impress Dr Mahathir
It was an act of some personal courage, but it cut little ice with Malaysia's autocratic leader. At a news conference the same day, Dr Mahathir said he'd no regrets about using the ISA against his critics.

"There are people in this country who would like to see Malaysia plunge into the kind of turmoil that they see in other countries," Dr Mahathir said.

"These people create problems for people, then they will have to be detained under the laws of this country."

Colonial origin

This is not the first time the Malaysian Government has resorted to a draconian law that originated in British colonial times. In 1987, an even more extensive crackdown against the opposition produced 110 arrests under the ISA.

The ISA allows the authorities an initial 60 days during which a detainee is kept in solitary confinement and denied access to lawyers or relatives.

Gobalakrishnan (right) and Ghani Harun were held under ISA
Gobalakrishnan (right) and Ghani Harun were held under ISA
According to Gobalakrishnan Nagapan, another Keadilan party leader who was jailed for 51 days, the police use these powers to brutal effect.

Mr Gobalakrishnan says he was isolated in a tiny windowless cell, and brought out only to face long interrogation sessions.

He says the questioning had nothing to do with the offences he was alleged to have committed. Instead, the interrogators' apparent aim was to turn him against his political allies.

"When I did not take their interrogation very seriously, they knew that I could not be brainwashed, they tried to force me to confess to having had sexual relationships with other women," Gobalakrishnan told the BBC.

"When I declined to confess, they assaulted me and they threatened me, saying they had many years of experience in getting people to talk what they want to."

Troubled times

The anti-ISA campaigners thought they had gained a significant ally in April when the government's own Human Rights Commission strongly criticised the detention of Ezam Noor, Gobalakrishnan and their colleagues, and urged the authorities either to release the men or bring them to trial in an open court.

Two months on, the commission vice-chairman, Maruun Hasidim, takes a more qualified view of the ISA.

He argues that given the political turmoil in neighbouring countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, a law enabling the authorities to act swiftly whenever trouble threatens makes good sense.

"You need something in store just in case something happens and that is the Internal Security Act. But I think even the government agrees that the law should be reviewed, or certain aspects should be reviewed."

No-one expects the authorities to give ground on the ISA readily. At the recent Umno meeting, Dr Mahathir lashed out at opposition activists, dismissing them as "idiots".

With the prime minister in such a mood, observers say further ISA arrests are a distinct possibility.

Nor is much hope held out for the appeal hearing for Ezam Noor and the other detainees, scheduled for 9 July.

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See also:

21 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mahathir goes on the offensive
20 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Corruption' warning for Malaysia's rulers
15 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Malaysia's strongman Mahathir
29 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mahathir's coalition loses by-election
11 Jun 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Malaysia
23 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mahathir hints at leadership change
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