Malaysia: Detention without trial -- Abolish the Internal Security Act 1960!

By Enalini Elumalai, general coordinator Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)

November 27, 2008 -- While Malaysia celebrated its 51st anniversary of Merdeka (independence) from Britain in 2008, the Malaysian government continued to arrest and detain individuals without charging them or putting them on trial under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), the legacy of a colonial legislation enacted to combat the communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s. 

The ISA was originally enacted to succeed emergency laws aimed at combating the communist insurgency in the 1940s and 1950s. It was also used against political dissidents, students and labour activists. Since then, the ISA has been used against those who commit acts deemed to be “prejudicial to the security of Malaysia” or threatening to the “maintenance of essential services” or “economic life”. The government determines which acts fall into these categories and, using a strained interpretation of the legislation, has detained scores of individuals under the ISA in cases that would normally require prosecution.

Under the ISA, detainees are subject to an initial 60-day detention period in special police holding centres, allegedly for the purpose of investigation. No judicial order is required for such detentions. The locations of these holding centres are kept secret, and detainees are transported to and from these centres in blindfolds. Visits by family members are purely discretionary and, contrary to Article 5(3) of the Malaysia's federal constitution, detainees are denied access to lawyers. During the initial detention period, detainees are commonly subject to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Abolish the Internal Security Act in Malaysia

At the end of the 60-day period, the Internal Security Ministry may release a detainee on restrictive orders, or order further detention without trial for a term of two years. The ministry can renew the two-year detentions indefinitely. Detainees may also be released with or without conditions at any time during detention. Conditions can include restrictions on activities, movement, residence and employment; orders to remain indoors during certain hours; and prohibitions against holding public office or taking part in political activities. Detainees who are issued two-year detention orders are held in the Kamunting Detention Camp (KDC) in Perak.

In recent years, the Malaysian government’s justification of detentions without trial has been highly contradictory. For example, it has criticised the United States government for detaining two Malaysians without trial in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006, yet continues to invoke such legislation to detain persons without trial in Malaysia. The prime minister appeared to be unaware that indefinite detention without trial continues to be used extensively in Malaysia.

Abolish ISA Movement (AIM)

The AIM which is better known in Malaysia as Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) is a coalition consisting of 83 organisations made up of non-governmental organisations, political parties, human right bodies, labour unions, women and student movement. It was launched on April 30, 2001, when 10 human rights activists (reformist or reformasi) were detained on unproven charges. Abolish the Internal Security Act in Malaysia

The two main objectives of GMI are to work towards the abolishment of ISA and to demand for the release of all ISA detainees on the premise that no one should be detained without trial.

In order to achieve these objectives, the GMI has launched several campaigns to create public awareness through press statements, exhibitions, demonstrations, forums, intellectual discourses, signature campaigns, publishing of books, distribution of pamphlets etc. Other key elements employed for the publicity of the GMI campaign include lobbying at the national and international level, filing legal proceedings, establishing the Family Support Centre, communicating with the media, fundraising etc.

Since then the GMI has been successful with support from the public:

  1. All 10 reformasi activists have been released. The Federal Court made a landmark decision on the habeas corpus case filed by six reformasi activists on September 6, 2002. It declared that the detention of these activists was mala fide and illegal.

  2. SUHAKAM or Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Malaysia (Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission) has vehemently proposed for the review of the ISA and has appealed for it to be replaced with a law that will protect the rights of detainees.

  3. Abolish the Internal Security Act in MalaysiaAll Al-Maunah ISA detainees have been released.

  4. All KMM (Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, Malaysian Militant Group) ISA detainees have been released (last six were released on October 18, 2006, just less than a week before Eid ul Fitr -- Muslim religious holiday).

  5. Many of the JI (Jemaah Islamiyaah) ISA detainees have been released.

  6. Ex-ISA detainee Abdul Malek Hussin won a lawsuit against the government over his arrest and torture in 1998, and was awarded RM2.5 million in damages on October 18, 2007. High Court judge Mohd Hishamuddin Mohd Yunus ruled that Abdul Malek’s detention was unlawful and that he had been assaulted and tortured under custody. The judge in awarding exemplary damages to the plaintiff said that it was “to show the court’s abhorrence against the gross abuse of power by the police and the use of the ISA

  7. Release of Raja petra Kamaruddin, Teresa Kok, Tan Hoon Cheng and Cheng Lee Wei, Sanjeev Kumar and several other six-year detainees (2008)

At the time of this writing, around 64 ISA detainees, alleged to be JI militia members, and many more detainees are still suffering in Kamunting Detention Centre and they were also detained without trial there.

What you can do?

  1. Please write a protest letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia to condemn the arrest under the ISA and call for abolition of the ISA.

  2. You may also send postcards to the detainees in detention centre to show to them that we are with them.

  3. You may contact the secretariat of AIM to get involved or support any of their activities.

1. Send a model letter by post, fax or email to the Malaysian government

Prime Minister of Malaysia Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister’s Office Malaysia, Perdana Putra Building, Federal Government Administrative Centre, 62502 PUTRAJAYA, Selangor, Malaysia. Tel: + 60 3 8888 6000 Fax: + 60 3 8888 3444 Email: e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
(With a copy to suaram@suaram.netThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Dear Mister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi,

Re: Appeal for the immediate release of ISA detainee’s and call for abolishment of the ISA

I am writing to strongly urge you to immediately release of all the ISA detainees who have been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

ISA detainees must be given recourse to a fair trial in conformity with international standards of due process and access to full legal representation and family members. If no evidence is found against a detainee, he/she should be released without delay, as holding them indefinitely merely on the basis of suspicion is a blatant violation of due process. I am also quite concerned about the fact that the ISA detainees have been physically abused and harassed in the past and are being forced to live in small cells and under strict regimes. I ask that you ensure that all the ISA detainees are treated according to the international human rights standards.

Human rights organizations and NGOs should be given immediate and full access to the Kamunting Detention Centre. Most importantly, I strongly urge you to abolish the ISA under which many such innocent people have been held in the past and are still being currently detained without charge, or legal representation, merely on the basis of suspicion.

I look forward to hearing from you on this matter,

Yours sincerely,
[Name, Date]

2. Address for material to be sent to ISA detainees in Kamunting Detention Camp

You can write letters of support to ISA detainees at the address below:

Tempat Tahanan Perlindungan
34009 Taiping
Perak Darul Ridzuan

List of ISA detainees in Kamunting (PDF)

3. Secretariat of AIM

Miss Nalini,
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
S/o Abolish ISA Movement
433 A, 1st Floor, Jalan 5/46, Gasing Indah,
46000, Petaling Jaya
Selangor, Malaysia.

Tel: +6 03 77843525
Fax: +6 03 77843526


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 12/09/2008 - 17:06


People power shines through candlelight vigils
Saturday, 06 December 2008 16:53

Despite the harsh action of the police at the 9 November vigil in PJ, the struggle to abolish the ISA will continue, writes Anil Netto.

It had been a night laced with drama in Petaling Jaya as a stand-off ensued between the rakyat seeking electoral reforms and the repeal of the ISA, on the one hand, and police, who were in a mood to crack down.

After having been chased away from the field near Amcorp Mall, the site of their usual vigils, the participants then entered the mall and gathered in the lobby as riot police lined up facing the entrance, glaring menacingly at them. Some among the crowd then went ‘shopping’ until about 9.30pm. They later dispersed but others adjourned to the PJ Civic Centre not far away for an impromptu gathering.

As they were singing the national anthem and about to disperse, riot police and plain-clothes officers marched into the crowd and arrested 23 people.

A few protesters complained they were roughed up or assaulted. “Two guys came over to grab one arm each and pushed me towards the Black Maria,’’ wrote MP Tony Pua in his blog. “I stated that I will walk, don’t be rough but they tore my shirt instead. I repeated my call and three other police officers came at me, one with the knees into my belly while another attempted to kick my shin.’’

“They then chucked me against the back of the Black Maria truck and shoved me up despite me stating that I can climb myself.’’

Authorities unnerved

Most Malaysians were shocked to hear of the police action on the night of Sunday, 9 November, and the arrests of concerned individuals who had turned up to show their opposition to the ISA. During previous vigils, a Selangor state government representative had assured the crowd that they could use the field without any fear of action.

Who were these 23 people the authorities felt compelled to arrest: they included three elected representatives, a town councillor, media personnel, lawyers, activists and a Catholic priest. All of them, except for one who was wanted for a different case, were released the next morning and will have to wait and see if the authorities will press charges.

The show of force by the riot police came like a bolt out of the blue. For several weeks before that, peaceful vigils against the ISA had passed without any untoward incident when police stood at the sidelines and observed, while snapping pictures and filming.

Against a storm of criticism, police have defended their action. “We don’t take sides. Even if an NGO, or even government parties were to organise such a gathering without permit, we would have acted in the same way,” Selangor state chief police officer Khalid Abu Bakar was reported as saying.

The 9 November vigil in Petaling Jaya was joined by civil society activists belonging to the Bersih coalition, which is lobbying for electoral reforms and free and fair elections in Malaysia. The vigil fell on the eve of the first anniversary of the huge Bersih protest rally on the streets of Kuala Lumpur last November, which drew about 40,000 people.

That anniversary, coupled with the presence of Malaysia Today news-portal manager Raja Petra Kamarudin, the last of the three ISA detainees arrested in September, could have unnerved the authorities. Raja Petra’s articles on scandals in the corridors of power have attracted a huge following – but they have also landed him in hot soup. But on 7 November, a brave High Court judge, in a rare decision against the Home Minister’s power to detain anyone under the ISA, surprisingly freed him from the Kamunting detention camp, much to the delight of civil society activists.

Persistent vigils

The Abolish ISA candlelight vigils began in September, following the ISA arrests of Raja Petra, Tan Hoon Cheng and Teresa Kok.

An immediate public outcry led to the prompt release of Hoon Cheng. The public outcry was followed by six consecutive Friday night candlelight vigils in Penang. As those weekly vigils drew to a close, weekly Sunday vigils began in Petaling Jaya. Instead of the vigils gradually fizzling out, residents in Ipoh (Sundays) and Seremban (Fridays) joined in with weekly vigils of their own. And Penang is set to resume its vigil on 15 Nov. The perseverance and persistence of the crowds must have surprised everyone, including the participants themselves.

Each of these vigils typically draws 150 to 300 people. Holding lighted candles and clad in Abolish ISA T-shirts, they listen to speeches and poems, sing (and sometimes croak!) rousing songs of freedom and justice, and sign petitions. They don badges and quickly establish a remarkable camaraderie with like-minded strangers at the vigil. It’s a bonding of the human spirit and for an hour or so, barriers of class, ethnicity, and religion are lifted. Afterwards, eye-witnesses post pictures and accounts of these vigils on blogs and websites, reaching a larger audience.

It is interesting to observe the profile of the crowd. Many are middle-class urbanites who bring friends and family members along – partners, children and parents - a couple of them are even Datuks. Some of them may be regulars at the vigils, but others are new faces and even youths. They know they are taking a risk of sorts by sticking their necks out, but they find strength and solidarity in numbers. You have to be there to feel the ‘spirit’ - the sense of being part of a larger family, a Bangsa Malaysia in the making. It’s inspiring to see ordinary people standing up to reclaim their rights, peacefully, non-violently and persistently.

Several churches too have shed their inhibitions and held special services and vigils of their own for the release of ISA detainees and the repeal of the ISA. The main church of the northern region, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Penang, held a special service, celebrated by about half a dozen priests and attended by 800 people.

By no stretch of the imagination, however, can it be said that the campaign against the ISA is largely a non-Malay/non-Muslim dominated movement. The Abolish ISA Movement (GMI), which comprises over 80 civil society groups, is spearheaded and coordinated by Jamaah Islah Malaysia, an Islamic reform group. The coordinators consult and engage with a range of NGO activists. One of the key activists of the GMI Family Support Group is the courageous Norlaila Othman, the wife of ISA detainee Mat Sah Mohd Satray, who has been detained without trial since 18 April 2002, more than six years. Pas has also played an important role in reaching out to the Malays about the evils of the ISA.

Real patriotism

Significantly, when confronted by riot police around them on 9 November, the crowd found inspiration and solace in singing the national anthem. In a sense, they were pointing to a new form of patriotism - founded on the ideals of justice, freedom, and sister/brotherhood that cut across barriers, rather than the sort of shallow patriotism that British author Samuel Johnson once described.

Boswell writing in 1775 had this to say:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.

We too should be careful to distinguish between real patriotism - the real love for the land and the thirst for justice among its inhabitants - and the false patriotism of scoundrels looking out for their own self-interest.

The vigils have had some impact. All three ISA detainees held in September have now been released. But another 65 detainees, many of whom are alleged to have links to regional terror groups – as yet unproven in a court of law – remain held without trial, several of them for close to seven years.

Turbulence in Umno

The drama on 9 November came at a time when Umno and other Barisan Nasional component parties are going through an uncertain leadership transition period after the 8 March general election saw them lose considerable ground to the opposition. Factional struggles are causing turbulence in several parties especially Umno, ahead of an intensely fought campaign for party elections scheduled for March.

Although Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has effectively handed over the Umno presidency without contest to his current deputy Najib, critics claim the premier’s hand was forced after the BN’s dismal performance in the general election. Three candidates are now vying to be the next Umno deputy president, taking over from Najib.

Mahathir’s son Mukhriz, meanwhile, is staking a strong claim to become the party’s next Youth chief. In the midst of all this, the party’s disciplinary committee has reportedly received 900 complaints of money politics (a euphemism for vote-buying) while factional disputes in party divisions have led to some bitterness. Even chairs have started flying on the deck, as the Umno ship rolls from side to side.

With the return of some of the Mahathir-inspired old guard, many fear that a return to the strong-arm methods and intolerance for dissent could be on the cards. The police action on Sunday may deter a few from participating in future vigils, but others are vowing to continue campaigning for the release of all ISA detainees and the repeal of the law.

Malaysians now have to choose between fear and truth. We may not live to see the results of our struggle but that should not concern us. We must act in the knowledge that injustice, violence and hatred in all its manifestations cannot prevail over compassion and justice. Armed with the knowledge that our cause is just, we can be confident that the ISA will one day be repealed and all detainees released, as sure as day follows night. It’s just a matter of time.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:04


Human Rights in Malaysia in 2008:

Heightened Politicisation of Race and Continued Use of Repressive Laws in Response to Political Challenges


Malaysian human rights group SUARAM released its Overview Report on the situation of human rights in Malaysia in 2008 today, in conjunction with the International Human Rights Day, which also marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.


In its report, which covers major events pertaining to civil and political rights in Malaysia in 2008, SUARAM noted the failure of the Malaysian government to respond to calls for reforms, democratisation and greater respect of human rights, which contributed to the ruling-Barisan Nasional's biggest loss in Malaysian electoral history in the General Election in March. According to SUARAM's report, despite the huge loss of popular support, the government still failed to respond to the popular call and continued to hold minimal regard for human rights.


"The government has obviously failed to learn from its debacle in the 12th General Election," said SUARAM Executive Director, Yap Swee Seng, during the release of the report.


According to SUARAM, after the huge loss of the BN in the General Election, instead of responding to the calls for reforms, democratisation and greater respect for human rights, the government reacted otherwise, using all means to hold on to power in the face of mounting criticisms and challenges to power. SUARAM noted that the BN government once again resorted to blatantly racialised politics to create an environment which would justify the use of an array of repressive laws in response to the loss of confidence in the government of Barisan Nasional  and the challenge mounted by the opposition after the General Election.


This, according to SUARAM, was illustrated in September, when the government once again invoked the spectre of racial tensions to justify its use of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) against a blogger, a journalist, and a member of parliament – all of whom were picked up by the police in the period of 24 hours.


Despite strong calls to abolish or review the ISA, including by component parties of the BN coalition, the government continued to make arrests and detentions under the act throughout the year. 10 arrests were made under the ISA in 2008. 46 detainees remain under the ISA at the end of the year. Despite the drop in the number of detainees at the end of the year as compared to previous years, the situation has not improved substantially, as the draconian act is still being used conveniently by the government, especially in times of political crisis, as was seen in September. Further, 16 of the current detainees have been detained for more than four years, of which 5 have been in detention since 2002.


Besides the ISA, the government also used various other laws and means to exert its control of power.


"Freedom of expression was most severely repressed by the government in 2008, targeting critics and political opposition for persecutions and prosecutions.


"For the first time, we saw bloggers being charged for sedition and criminal defamation, while there were clear selective persecutions on demonstrations throughout the year," Yap stressed.


Yap said that it is therefore of no surprise that Malaysia fell to an all-time low position of 132nd out of 195 countries in the world ranking of press freedom in 2008, dropping from 124th in 2007.


SUARAM also noted that most of the regressive trends observed in recent years persist. These include the failure of the government to implement most of the more substantial recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police (Royal Police Commission).


Other areas of grave concern highlighted in SUARAM's report are the eroding confidence towards the judiciary with no substantial reforms being taken despite the findings of the Commission of Enquiry on the "Lingam Tape" which confirmed the heavily compromised independence of the judiciary; and the non-recognition of the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers which resulted in serious violations of their rights, particularly in mass arrests, deportations and inhuman conditions of detention.


Besides highlighting the regressive trends of 2008, SUARAM also noted with concern the imminent change in the top political leadership of the country in March 2009, which could see an attempt by the government to consolidate power after its huge loss in popular support recently. It warned that such attempts to consolidate power, has in the past, resulted in the heightened persecutions and prosecutions of dissidents and critics of the government.


SUARAM called on the government to implement genuine reforms in all policies and sectors in order to comply with the protection and promotion of human rights. It urged the government to ensure institutional reforms such as the immediate establishment of the Independent Police Complaint and Misconduct Commission, the formation of an independent Judicial Appointment Commission, the amendments to make the Anti-Corruption Agency and the National Human Rights Commission as body independent from the executive and report directly to the Parliament.  


It also urged the government to initiate policy reforms such as the ratification of the core international human rights treaties and bring the domestic laws in line with these international treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Against All Form of Racial Discrimination.


"The government should implement these genuine reforms if it is to win back the confidence and votes of the people. The people will not hesitate to vote out the Barisan Nasional government in the next election if it continues to perpetuate racial politics and repression of the rights of the people," warned Yap .     


SUARAM's 2008 overview report can be downloaded from SUARAM's website: