New Malaysia PM frees detainees, lifts media ban

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his first act after talking office today, freed 13 people being held under a law that allows indefinite detention and lifted a ban on two opposition newspapers.

“These decisions are timely as we move to enhance the confidence of our citizens in those entrusted with maintaining peace, law and order,” Najib said in a surprise announcement on national television, hours after taking the oath of office.

“In this spirit, I would like to announce that the government has decided with immediate effect to remove the temporary ban on two news publications (and) release 13 detainees” from detention under the Internal Security Act, he said in a short and solemn speech.

Those freed include two ethnic Indian activists who were arrested in December 2007 for leading an anti-government campaign, three foreigners and eight suspected Islamic militants, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar announced separately.

About 30 others remain in custody under the decades-old ISA, which allows indefinite detention without trial. Najib also promised to “conduct a comprehensive review” of the act.

He lifted the ban on the Harakah and Suara Keadilan newspapers, the publications of two main opposition parties. The three-month ban, imposed on March 23 with no reason given, ignited fears of a crackdown on press freedom.

“It is a good start. I am happy he has done this as it sets the bar high for his promise of adherence to rule of law. We fully expect him to live up to it,” said Malaysia’s leading human rights lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar.

“The ISA is a draconian and oppressive act which runs counter to the rule of law in modern Malaysia. All other detainees must be released as well,” he told The Associated Press.

At various times opposition lawmakers, journalists and bloggers have been arrested under the ISA. Five ethnic Indian activists from the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, were arrested in December 2007, of whom two are being freed.

They had organized a massive anti-government demonstration to complain about discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in the Malay-majority country.

“We want the unconditional and immediate release of all ISA detainees,” said Hindraf leader P. Wayatha Moorthy, who lives in exile in London. “Only then can Najib sow confidence in the people” that he wants to bring democracy to Malaysia, he said in a telephone interview.

Malaysia’s minority ethnic Indians and Chinese have been chafing at an affirmative action program for the Malay majority. In March 2008 elections, minority discontentment led to the ruling National Front coalition’s worst results in the 51 years it has been in power.

It failed to get a two-thirds majority for the first time in 40 years, conceding 82 seats to the opposition in the 222-member Parliament. It also lost an unprecedented five states.

Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, accepted blame for the loss and was forced out of office by the United Malays National Organization party, which leads the Front. Abdullah resigned Thursday as part of a planned power transition spread over one year.

The 55-year-old, British-educated Najib inherited the mammoth task of healing the country’s politics, society and an economy heading for recession.

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