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ATimes: Business as Usual
By Anil Netto
12/12/2001 2:10 am Wed
December 8, 2001 atimes.com
Business as usual
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - It started off like any other Ramadan morning,
but a sense of deja vu must have enveloped opposition politician Dr
Badrul Amin Bahron before his Friday morning was over.
The former International Islamic University law faculty lecturer was
resting after returning from the market when some half a dozen
police officers turned up at his home in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, to
Badrul, a supreme council member of the opposition National
Justice Party (Keadilan), was detained apparently for flouting the
restrictions on his personal freedoms imposed after his release under
the much feared Internal Security Act (ISA) just over a month ago.
By detaining him just three days before World Human Rights Day on
December 10, the authorities are perhaps also signalling that they
are not likely to lighten up on the use of the ISA to quell dissent
amid worrying economic conditions.
Ironically, the re-arrest comes on the eve of a human rights
conference and a festival in Kuala Lumpur organized by three
prominent non-governmental organizations.
Badrul was first detained on April 20, along with nine other reformasi
activists and held for 197 days before being released on November
3. Five of those detained are still holed up at the Kamunting
Detention Camp - a "rehabilitation" center to which detainees are
sent after the harsh initial 60-day interrogation period. The grounds
of their arrests? Alleged involvement in "militant" reformasi activities
aimed at toppling the government. No evidence has been made
public and neither has there been any trial in court.
Since July, the total number of detainees in Kamunting has crept
upward from 69 to 78 in November.
Who exactly is Badrul? According to his wife Zumrah, Badrul is
involved in missionary work, and is a community activist who
exhorts believers and the community to do good. His approach
struck a resonance among students and teenagers. He was also a
facilitator for youth and teenage programs held under the auspices
of the Youth and Sports Ministry, she said. "He has displayed firm
commitment to the Islamic call to prevent sin and to uphold the
truth," said Zumrah.
The turning point came when jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar
Ibrahim was sacked from government in 1998. Badrul, who had by
then completed a BA in Shariah at the Al-Azhar University, an MA
in Comparative Law at Kent University, England, and a PhD in
Islamic Constitutional Law at Birmingham University, was so
disappointed with the country's legal system that he left his
comfortable university job to go down to the ground, recalled
"I have never regretted the path he has taken," she said. "As he has
said, he couldn't remain quiet as he knew the law and did not want
his conscience to be pricked. I am proud of his stand." Zumrah
relies on her faith for strength. "I believe what has happened is a
trial from Allah for us to continue struggling with faith and obedience
to His will.''
Rights activists have consistently criticized the ISA, which they
allege is a political tool to silence dissent and create a climate of
fear. Harrowing accounts of the relentless interrogation and "turning
over" techniques - probably fine-tuned during the era when the
government was battling a communist insurgency - have left many
activists deeply disturbed.
September 11 has provided the Malaysian government with
something akin to a blank check to use the ISA. In the past, the
United States' State Department used issue an annual human rights
report that roundly condemned the use of the ISA. Now people such
as the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Rais Yatim, can
sit back and relax. He argues that the "Safe America Act 2001"
enacted by the US recently is more controversial and extreme
compared to the ISA - a debatable point - as if that somehow
justifies the existence of such an obnoxious law in Malaysia.
"Britain also has an act to curb terrorism in Northern Ireland and it
has provisions which are more severe than the ISA," he added. "All
this time, the United States, for example, criticized other countries
which have strict laws on security; now they themselves have come
up with laws which are even more severe than the ones we have,"
As the economy slides, the government can be expected to resort to
laws such as the ISA to put a lid on dissent. Over the past week,
several opposition politicians have been hauled up for organizing a
ceramah (political gathering) - a warning that political space is not
likely to be expanded in the near future.
And there could be reasons for tightening the space in the light of
the controversies that have boiled over. Highway tolls are due to be
raised 10 percent, a controversial prosecutor is expected to become
the new attorney-general, and the authorities are red-faced over
revelations of grade tampering in the qualifying examinations for law
graduates to enter public practice.
Business plans such as that involving Malaysian Airports Holdings'
attempts to sell its Formula One racing circuit to national oil
company Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) may also be viewed as
bailouts. The plans to sell the circuit come hot on the heels of the
takeover by the government of heavily-indebted light rail transit
firms and a major politically-connected infrastructure firm.
With all of these concerns, the authorities are not likely to ease up on keeping dissent in check. It's not going to be the most encouraging of times to mark Human Rights Day in Malaysia.