Despite deafening calls to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA), there was no indication at all in 2008 that it will be abolished or replaced with a new law.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has also proposed that the ISA be replaced with an anti-terrorism law, stressing on the rights of detainees like appointing lawyers and the right to judicial review.
Calls to abolish the ISA gained momentum after several Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) leaders were detained on Dec 13, last year for demonstrating in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25 and making slanderous statements against the government.
The Hindraf leaders include lawyer M. Manoharan, state assemblyman for Kota Alam Shah, lawyer P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganabatirau, R. Kenghadharan and former bank officer K. Vasantha Kumar.
Their appeals have yet to be heard by the Federal Court.
Matters came to a head when Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Seputeh Member of Parliament Teresa Kok and Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng were detained under the ISA on Sept 12.
Raja Petra, who is also a blogger, was detained for an article with elements deemed insulting to Islam that could spark anger and affect the peace.
Kok, who was detained under section 73 (1) of ISA for sparking racial and religious conflict over the controversial mosque azan issue was released a week later.
Tan was detained by police in Penang for her report on a speech by Bukit Bendera Umno chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail who had allegedly said “the Chinese are passengers.” She was released, a week later.
Their detentions, particularly Tan’s, were strongly criticised by various quarters prompting Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar to say she was detained to “protect her from death threats”. The Bar Council Malaysia held an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) and passed six resolutions, asking the government to abolish the ISA and other laws allowing detention without trial.
Among the ISA provisions deemed undemocratic and a violation of human rights are Section 73 which gives the police the power to arrest and interrogate individuals believed to be a threat to national security for 60 days, and Section 8 which allows the home minister to issue a detention order for two years without trial.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS held functions to protest against the ISA. On Sept 15, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng said the ISA should be abolished as it was a violation of human rights and undemocratic.
A day earlier, former minister in the prime minister’s department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim had said the government should not have used the ISA on the trio as there were other laws to punish those who sparked racial tension like the Sedition Act and the Penal Code.
He said the ISA was still relevant, provided it was used for its original aim to detain terrorists out to topple the government and not misused for political interest.
Peoples’ Progressive Party president Datuk M. Kayveas took a drastic step, saying the party would leave the Barisan Nasional if the government did not amend the ISA before the next general election.
Despite the perception that the ISA was repressive, detainees still have the opportunity for freedom. They can challenge their detentions by filing a writ of habeas corpus in court.
The small number of detainees who succeeded shows that the court has a role in serving justice to those detained under the act.
On Nov 7, the Shah Alam High Court ordered that Raja Petra be released from ISA as his detention by the home minister under section 8 did not fall within the scope of that section.
On Sept 6, 2002, the Federal Court released five opposition leaders and activists after finding that their arrest and detention on April 10 and 11, 2001 under section 73 (1) were unlawful.
They were PKR information chief Mohamad Ezam Mohamed Nor, PKR vice-president Tian Chua, reform activist Hishammudin Rais, Free Anwar Campaign director Raja Petra Kamaruddin and Jemaah Islamiah Malaysia president Saari Sungib.
Former chief justice Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah had told a seminar on the constitution and human rights in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 30, 2003 that although the court had no authority to review the power of the home minister to detain under section 8 of the ISA, the court could review the police arrest and detention under section 73 of the same act.
A former ISA detainee was awarded compensation of RM2.5 million last year after he sucessfully filed a suit against the police and government for his detention and torture since 1998.
Judge Datuk Mohd Hishamudin Mohd Yunus said Abdul Malek Hussin had the right to compensation because his 10-day detention on Sept 25, 1998 and 57-day detention under ISA was unlawful and conducted by way of mala fide (ill intent) as his interrogation at the federal police headquarters in Bukit Aman was of political nature to gain information for politics and had nothing to do with national security.
On the controversy over the ISA, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the government had no plans to review the act as it was still relevant in the present day context as countries like the United States and United Kingdom had also implemented such laws for security reasons.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar rejected claims that the ISA was used freely and stressed the government had used it wisely and fairly.
He said this was proven by the release of six ISA detainees on Dec 10, including two members of the militant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as they no longer posed a threat to national security.
The number of ISA detainees has also dropped from 75 to 46, including 16 JI members, 13 from the Darul Islam group, 10 for forging identity cards and passports, five from Hindraf and two for working with a foreign intelligence agency.
Syed Hamid reiterated that the ISA was not used for the political interest of the ruling party but to ensure peace and public order, and that it would not be amended or abolished despite threats and criticisms from various quarters.