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ATimes: Business as Usual
By Anil Netto

12/12/2001 2:10 am Wed

December 8, 2001

Southeast Asia


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 re-arrest him.

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 Zumrah.

"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," he said.

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.