The United States demanded that Malaysia provide fair treatment to five leaders of a rights group held under a security law that allows for indefinite detention without trial.
The five from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), pushing for an end to discrimination of ethnic Indians in multi-racial Malaysia, were picked up yesterday and ordered held under the feared Internal Security Act (ISA).
"Our expectation as a government is that these individuals would be provided the full protections under Malaysian law, that they would be given due process, that they would be accorded all the rights accorded to any other citizen, and that this be done in a speedy and transparent manner," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Hindraf enraged the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi last month by mustering at least 30,000 people to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to highlight various issues facing ethnic Indians, including lack of economic opportunities and destruction of Hindu temples.
Police used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges to break up the protests.
"It is our firm position that those individuals who want to peacefully express themselves in a political forum or any other forum should be allowed to do so," McCormack told reporters.
Human rights groups have campaigned for the abolition of the ISA, a law that they say has been abused by the authorities.
The ISA is currently being used to hold more than 100 people, including about 80 alleged Islamic militants.
Human Rights Watch, a US group, said the arrest was "outrageous."
"We have said over and over again that the ISA should be abolished and there is no room for holding people, never mind indefinitely, without charge and trial," said Mickey Spiegel, the group's Asia division senior researcher.
Erasing Hindu heritage
The Malaysian government has always used deadly race riots in 1969 as a reason for controls on freedom, even though some groups believe that after 50 years of independence, Malaysians are matured enough to discuss their grievances openly.
"Malaysian authorities are obligated, like any sovereign countries' government, to balance the need for public order with equally important need for robust and free debate of issues important to Malaysian citizens," a State Department official said.
"It is our hope that the Malaysia government will allow the freest possible debate," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a US non-profit law firm that helps defend freedom of all religions, charged that the destruction of Hindu temples - some built before the start of the British colonial period almost two centuries ago - could be an attempt to erase Hindu heritage in Malaysia.
Hindraf claimed one temple was being demolished every three weeks.
"What I have heard from people is really that in destroying these temples, they are trying to destroy evidence of how long the Hindu faith has been a part of Malaysia, particularly in the context of advancing Islamisation and of the equation of Islam with nationalism in Malaysia," said Angela Wu, the Fund's international law director.
Hindraf has filed a four trillion dollar lawsuit against Britain for alleged atrocities suffered by Indians whose forefathers were brought as indentured laborers to Malaysia during colonial rule.