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Malaysia arrests ethnic Indians under law allowing detention without trial

    KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian authorities arrested five ethnic Indian activists Thursday under a security law that allows indefinite detention without trial, a lawyer said.
    The activists are key officials in the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, which held a street protest Nov. 25 that drew about 20,000 ethnic Indians complaining about alleged racial discrimination.
    ‘‘They will be detained for at least two years under the Internal Security Act,’’ Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharom told The Associated Press. ‘‘This action is necessary because they have been causing a lot of problems for the public.’’
    The arrests escalate a government crackdown on Hindraf since it organized last month’s rally — the biggest protest involving ethnic Indians in more than a decade and one that triggered fears of ethnic unrest in this multiracial country.
    Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi earlier this week said the government will not tolerate street demonstrations because they could lead to violence. He warned that if necessary, he would invoke the ISA ‘‘without feeling guilty, without feeling sad.’’
    The arrests marked the first time the ISA — meant for suspects regarded as threats to national security — has been used against government critics since 2001, when six opposition activists were detained.
    Dozens of Hindraf supporters gathered outside the police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur to protest the arrests Thursday. Riot police stood watch to maintain order.
    Hindraf has demanded equality and fair treatment for Indians, saying an affirmative action program that gives preferential treatment to the Muslim Malay majority in business, jobs and education is tantamount to racial discrimination.
    The government denies it discriminates against Indians.
    Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, a leading Malaysian human rights activist, criticized the arrests.
    ‘‘You can never justify the use of the ISA,’’ Syed Ibrahim said. ‘‘We are concerned about these detainees because there have been numerous cases of police torture in ISA cases.’’
    Ethnic Indians make up about 8 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people.

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