Friday, Mar 29, 2002

Malaysian leader cites prisoners held by U.S.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - (AP) -- Long criticized by U.S. officials for locking up suspects -- including political opponents -- without trial, Malaysia's leader on Thursday likened the practice to security measures taken by the United States since Sept. 11.
''Events in the United States have shown that there are instances where certain special powers need to be used in order to protect the public for the general good,'' Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in an interview.
Mahathir was referring to the detention and trial measures pushed by the Bush administration since the terror attacks.
Malaysia has arrested 24 people since December for alleged membership in an al Qaeda-linked group. The group is accused of planning bomb attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Singapore.
The suspects have been jailed under the Internal Security Act, first implemented in Malaysia to fight a communist insurgency in the 1950s. It allows indefinite detention without trial for people the government decides threaten national security.
The U.S. government has condemned the law, lining up with Malaysian opposition and international rights groups.
But Mahathir said events since Sept. 11 have proved the law's critics wrong and allowed him to pre-empt a series of threats to his rule by armed militant groups who consider his moderate government to not be Islamic enough.
''Everybody is for the due process of the law, but this a law that permits something to be prevented from happening,'' Mahathir said.
U.S. authorities have detained hundreds of people since the terror attacks for immigration violations, and many are still being held with little or no contact with lawyers or relatives.
Cooling criticism about Malaysia's security law has helped improve relations with the United States, which became difficult when Mahathir fired and jailed his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998 and put down subsequent street protests.
Mahathir met President Bush on the sidelines of a Pacific leaders' summit last October. Mahathir aides say an official visit to Washington is possible in mid-May.
The government's actions leading to Anwar's jailing are ''better understood today'' in the United States, Mahathir said, noting that U.S. congressional staffers have visited Malaysia in recent months.
''We are able to talk with each other without any heat,'' Mahathir said of his relationship with Bush.
Despite being a vital U.S. ally in cracking al Qaeda, which the United States blames for the Sept. 11 attacks, Mahathir has been a critic of the war in Afghanistan and said Thursday that expanding the campaign to include military strikes on Iraq would give extremists ``a new cause for terrorism.''
Mahathir will open a gathering in Kuala Lumpur next week where top officials from more than 50 Muslim countries will discuss terrorism and its causes.