(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): In the past few days, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the Foreign Minister, Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the second Finance Minister, Datuk Mustapha Mohamed had been accusing Malaysians abroad who criticise the government for being disloyal, calling on them to return and voice their dissatifaction through proper channels.
Abdullah Badawi has gone to the extent of saying yesterday that his ministry was reviewing legal action like the Sedition Act to be taken against supporters of detained former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who are abroad criticising Mahathir and the government, people like former UMNO Youth assistant secretary Saifudin Nasution Ismail, former Penang UMNO Youth chief Abdul Rahim Ghouse and Anwar’s former political secretary Mohamad Ezam Mohd Noor.
Dr. Mahathir accused Malaysians who criticise the country from abroad as having no love for the nation and said that if they had a problem in Malaysia, it should be settled within the country.
I hold no watching brief for what the three Anwar supporters are doing in neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, but it is ridiculous for Cabinet Ministers to ask them to return home to voice their dissatisfactions through "proper channels" when there are simply no "proper channels" for the free and democratic ventilation of dissent in the country.
In fact, the first thing that would most likely happen to Abdul Rahim Ghouse, Saifuddin Nasution and Mohamad Ezam Mohd. Noor when they return to Malaysia is to be detained at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport under the Internal Security Act and to disappear from public sight for 60 days! Are these the "proper channels" that the Cabinet Ministers are asking the trio to return to Malaysia to express their dissatisfactions?
Or can the Cabinet Ministers who are asking them to return to Malaysia to fight for their views give a guarantee that none of them would be detained under the ISA on their return home?
Even now, the ISA is still being arbitrarily used, with the Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) President, Haji Shaari Sungip only detained yesterday under the undemocratic Section 73(1) of the ISA for alleged involvement in activities detrimental to national security.
Yesterday, an engineer, Mahinder Singh Randhawa, 55, was freed unconditionally a day after he was detained by the police under the ISA. Was Mahinder ever a threat to national security to the extent that the ISA had to be invoked against him - and if so, how could the police come to the conclusion in less than 24 hours that Mahinder is no such threat?
The ISA arrest of Mahinder is a clear case of another gross abuse of the ISA - which is being used by the police to instil a climate of fear among the citizenry. Is the Police prepared to give a full public explanation why Mahinder was detained under the ISA in the first place, and then released unconditionally in less than 24 hours - to demonstrate that there is no abuse of ISA powers by the Police?
If what Saifuddin Nasution, Abdul Rahim Ghouse and Mohamad Ezam had said or done outside the country have violated laws of the land, and are actionable, whether it be sedition or any other law, they should be charged in open court where they have the opportunity to defend themselves. But the question is whether they would suffer the double jeopardy as happened to Anwar Ibrahim - to be charged in court and yet still detained under the Internal Security Act, which clearly hobbles one’s ability to fully defend oneself against very serious charges of offences against the state.
The Cabinet meeting tomorrow should take a hard look at the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and Malaysia’s very bad international image in the past six weeks.
This is the time for Ministers to speak up in Cabinet that it is not in the national interest for Malaysia to be regarded increasingly like another Myanmar regime in international society, and that Malaysia must make special efforts to restore Malaysia’s international image, especially in the field of human rights and democratic freedoms in the run up to the APEC Leaders Summit in Kuala Lumpur next month.
As a first step, the government should immediately release Anwar Ibrahim, Shaari, Ruslan Kassim, Abdul Malek Hussein and lawyer Zulkifli Nordin under the ISA, give an assurance that Malaysians who criticise the government from abroad would not be detained under the ISA on their return home, and open a dialogue with opposition parties and NGOs to ensure that there are "proper channels" for democratic ventilation of dissent in Malaysia in keeping with Malaysia’s claim to be a democratic society.