Malaysia said Friday it will free 13 people detained under internal security laws, including three ethnic Indian activists held without trial since organising anti-government protests in 2007.
The release of the trio, members of the banned ethnic Indian rights group Hindraf, removes a thorn in the side of new Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is trying to promote his reform credentials.
They and the other 10 were held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a relic of the British colonial era which allows for indefinite detention without trial, and which human rights groups have campaigned to have abolished.
“All of them have been freed because they no longer need to be held under ISA. I will sign the papers now, I expect them to be released in two or three days,” Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a press conference.
The security legislation has been used against government opponents as well as dozens of suspected Islamic militants, but the new releases mean that there are currently no political prisoners in detention.
Hishammuddin did not say who the other 10 detainees were but they included three Malaysians, five Filipinos and two Indonesians. He said Malaysia was discussing deportation plans with their embassies.
One of the Hindraf members, M. Manoharan, was elected from his jail cell to a seat in the parliament of Selangor state in general elections last year that saw a sharp swing to the opposition.
Hishammuddin denied that the decision to free Manoharan was triggered by his recent threat to quit, which would force a by-election that the government can ill afford after a series of defeats in the polls over the past year.
However, Hindraf chairman P. Waythamoorthy said in a statement from his exile in London that the release was merely a stunt to distract from the ruling coalition’s political woes.
He insisted that the government should abolish the ISA, and “acknowledge the neglect and positive marginalisation of the Malaysian Indians over the last 52 years and apologise for its wrongdoing.”
S. Indradevi, the wife of Hindraf detainee P. Uthayakumar, who along with the others was held at the Kamunting detention centre in Malaysia’s north, said she was overjoyed at the news, which was completely unexpected.
“I am very happy indeed and I am thankful to (ethnic Indian rights campaigners) who have been through a lot for us, including tear gas and water cannons,” she told AFP.
“The detention of my husband and other Hindraf leaders is unlawful, they didn’t do anything wrong.”
Najib freed another batch of 13 detainees, including two Hindraf leaders, soon after being sworn in last month. He said the move was good for Malaysia, and denied it was a bid to win back support for the ruling coalition.
The five Hindraf leaders were taken into custody after enraging the government in November 2007 by mounting a mass rally alleging discrimination against minority ethnic Indians.
Ethnic Indians make up less than eight percent of the 27 million population of the mainly Muslim-Malay country, but say they fare badly in terms of education, wealth and employment opportunities.
As of early April there were 27 people in detention under the ISA, mainly suspected Islamic militants.
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Malaysia has been using security legislation against government opponents