Five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) were arrested by the police this afternoon under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial.
Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan said the arrests, under Section 8(1) of the ISA, were made against the five for carrying out activities that threatened national security.
In a rare move, the five were sent straight to the Kamunting detention centre in Taiping, Perak, to be detained for two years, without undergoing the usual 60-day investigation period.
Those arrested are Hindraf legal advisers P Uthayakumar, M Manoharan, R Kenghadharan and V Ganabatirau and organising secretary T Vasantha Kumar.
Musa said that the five were arrested between 12.30pm and 2.30pm in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Seremban.
Kenghadharan was the first to be picked up at his office in Petaling Jaya at around 12.30pm by a police team from from Bukit Aman. Next was Ganabatirau who was nabbed in Seremban. Vasantha Kumar was detained about 2pm in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
According to Ganabatirau's brother Raidu, the lawyer was arrested by a police Special Branch team led by ASP Zairulnain Lamat from Bukit Aman.
“When asked why he was being arrested, he (Zairulnain) said that it was under the ISA,” Raidu told Malaysiakini.
He added that Zairulnain said the police had information that Hindraf was planning another rally like the one organised in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25.
Meanwhile, Manoharan was arrested near his legal firm in Jalan Pantai, Kuala Lumpur whereas Uthayakumar was the last to be detained at 2.30pm from his legal firm in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
Struggle to continue
Earlier today, Uthayakumar told Malaysiakini that he suspected more Hindraf leaders would be rounded up following Kenghadharan's arrest.
The lawyer also revealed that a police team had followed him from his house to the office and that Ganabatirau was also tailed from Shah Alam to Seremban.
In a related development, Hindraf member S Jayathas said the arrests will not hamper Hindraf’s struggle.
"Regardless of the arrests this struggle will move on. We have many leaders who are waiting to take over and we will not go backwards but move ahead to fight for the rights of Indians in Malaysia," he told AFP.
Under the police radar
The police have been targeting Hindraf lawyers over the past few weeks. The crackdown started with the arrest of chairperson P Waythamoorthy, Uthayakumar and Ganabatirau on Nov 23. They were then charged with sedition in Klang.
On Tuesday, Uthayakumar was again arrested and charged on another count of sedition in Kuala Lumpur. He was arrested once more on the same day and kept overnight in remand before being released yesterday without being charged.
Both Waythamoorthy and Ganabatirau were also re-arrested over the past week and released after being held for some hours.
Waythamoorthy, who is Uthayakumar's younger brother and also a lawyer, is currently in London on a mission to lobby for support from international groups.
Hindraf has come under the police radar after organising nationwide talks in which they are alleged to have made seditious speeches in relation to the marginalisation of the Indian Malaysian community.
Hindraf's rally in Kuala Lumpur attracted some 30,000 people. The police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Thirty-one of the protesters have been charged with attempted murder and causing mischief with some facing a third charge of illegal assembly.
The government has been threatening to use the ISA against Hindraf leaders for some weeks now.
Last week, Musa claimed that Hindraf was linked to terrorist groups and was active in fanning racial sentiments among the Indian community by stirring up their anger and arousing hatred against the government.
He added that the police had been monitoring the group - helmed by six prime movers comprising five lawyers and a senior executive of a private company - since July 28.
Law used against gov't critics
The ISA is not thought to have been used against government critics since 2001, when Malaysia was under the iron grip of former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad who used it to quell a reform movement triggered by the arrest of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang condemned the government's move and said that if the Hindraf leaders had committed any offence they should be charged and tried in an open court.
"It is deplorable, the use of the ISA is completely indefensible," he said.
"To resort to detention without trial is a regression to the dark days of human rights violations and is something that will bring further shame to Malaysia's international image and reputation."
Abdullah has for several weeks been threatening to invoke the draconian legislation against Hindraf, which authorities have accused of having links with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers. The group denies the charges.
Earlier this week the premier alluded to the use of the ISA by saying that he considered public safety to be more important than public freedom.
Lawyers and human rights group have warned that the use of the ISA will only inflame the protest movement, which is airing grievances that have been bottled up for many years.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar from the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) said the government's move was regrettable and unnecessary.
"The ISA detention will have the unfortunate effect of now stopping genuine attempts on the part of the marginalised Indian community to have their grievances addressed," he told AFP.
The legislation - which dates back to the British colonial era when it was used against communist insurgents - provides for two-year detention periods that can be renewed indefinitely.