Human rights group slams 'culture of fear' in Malaysia

Malaysia's government has created a "culture of fear" in the country, an international human rights watchdog charged today.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said in a statement released here that Malaysia had a sophisticated system to stifle attempts to promote and defend human rights.

The Observatory is a joint program of the International Federation for Human rights and the World Organisation Against Torture.

Systematic interrogations, surveillance, economic pressure and negative exposure in the media were among "classic instruments used by the authorities", the group said.

"Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are heavily restricted. The tight control directly or indirectly exerted over the media is a key element in hindering independent human rights advocacy." The Paris-based organisation sent a mission to Malaysia for 15 days from March 7 to gather information on rights groups.

It met activists, journalists, lawyers and families of detainees under the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows indefinite detention without trial, as well as the attorney-general.

Six supporters of jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who are held under ISA, plan to launch a hunger strike April 10, the first anniversary of their arrest, the organisation said.

Anwar is serving a total of 15 years in prison for abuse of power and sodomy. He says he was framed to avert a political challenge to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, and is regarded as a political prisoner by the United States.

Malaysia's government appeared to have used the global "war on terrorism" to justify its efforts to curtail the opposition through the ISA, the rights group said. Dozens of alleged Islamic militants have been detained without trial since the September 11 terror attacks on the US.