KUALA LUMPUR — The focus of attention surrounding a controversial Malaysian security law has shifted to Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi after the country’s highest court allowed an appeal of five opposition detainees in a dramatic decision last Friday. The legislation allows detention of suspects, without trial, for long periods.

It is now up to Abdullah in his concurrent capacity as home affairs minister to take the next step after the panel of four judges in the Federal Court unanimously decided that the five National Justice Party (Keadilan) leaders had been unlawfully detained for the past 17 months.

He can either release them or let their detention continue until the expiry of their two-year detention order, which he had earlier authorized under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Either way Abdullah decides — and he must soon — the repercussions will be far-reaching, not only for him as incoming prime minister but also for his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which is the backbone of the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government.

The ISA is tough legislation introduced during the height of the communist insurgency in 1960, replete with certain methods of torture to break the will of hardcore terrorists. After an initial detention period of 60 days, the home affairs minister, acting on the advice of the police, can either commit suspects to two-year detention periods or free them. Over the years, the ISA had proved an effective deterrent against communist activities.

While the government had held that the ISA could effectively deter security threats, some observers have noted that it had also been used against the NF’s political opponents. Many past detainees had complained of abuses and torture, charges aired in public even long before the law’s original target, the Malayan Communist Party, ceased to be a security threat. The subversive party signed a peace treaty with the Malaysian government in 1989 in Thailand, bringing about its dissolution.

On April 10 last year, Malaysian police detained 10 Keadilan leaders on allegations of plotting to topple the government through mass action along the lines adopted by opponents of the Suharto regime in Indonesia before its fall in 1998.

Section 73 of the ISA allowed the detainees to be held for 60 days with their whereabouts not being made known to their families. The detainees’ lawyers filed habeas corpus writs to require the police to justify their detention, failing which the detainees should be released. After some initial hitches, the appeal finally succeeded at the Federal Court earlier this month.

In one stroke, the judges unanimously agreed that the police had acted in bad faith by detaining the Keadilan leaders based on their antiestablishment political activities rather than on security grounds. The judges said the allegations of planning a revolt by using guns and Molotov cocktails were unsubstantiated.

But the judges also decided that their decision would not affect the earlier two-year detention order on the five detainees signed by the home affairs minister.

Abdullah now faces an awkward situation where, either way he decides, the flak will still be on him and the Malaysian government. Observers believe that if Abdullah withdraws the detention orders, he would be enhancing his image as “Mr. Clean.”

The legal grounds for release are compelling. The judges had pointed out that the police were not in compliance with Section 73 of the law, as they had failed to refute the arguments of the detainees through sworn affidavits that they were jailed because of their political beliefs. And since Section 8 (1) of the ISA, which empowers the minister to detain the suspects, hinged very much on Section 73, then logically, applying it would be moot.

For some time the Malaysian judiciary had been beleaguered by charges that it was being manipulated by the executive and wielded as a tool in cracking down on the political opposition. Should Abdullah rescind his detention order, it would not only show him to be a man of principles, but also go a long way to restore the professionalism and integrity of the judiciary which many Malaysians feel have been eroded.

But on the other side of the coin, the move could hurt the government badly. It would be tantamount to vindicating the long-standing charges of the opposition and nongovernmental organizations that the ISA is an oppressive tool calculated to suppress legitimate opposition. Boosting their arguments are NF and UMNO leaders who have either remained silent or made wry comments to the effect that the police must correct their “mistakes” to avoid being placed in an embarrassing position in future.

The move could also give a fillip to the campaign of all those championing human rights — in Malaysia and abroad — to have Draconian legislation such as the ISA eventually abolished. Understandably, certain powerful circles in the ruling coalition and the UMNO do not welcome such a prospect, as they rely on the ISA in silencing their political opponents and other critics.

The decision of the Federal Court has placed Abdullah in a tight spot and should be a real test for him — even before he officially takes over as premier in October 2003, when Mahathir Mohamad steps down.

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