Police briefly detain Malaysian opposition leader

Sean Yoong, KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, AP

A senior Malaysian opposition leader was arrested briefly Sunday for handing out leaflets criticizing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, police and opposition officials said.

Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the Democratic Action Party, was detained with five supporters at a police station in Port Dickson, 70 kilometers (40 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur, party spokesman Anthony Loke said.

A Port Dickson police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that all six men were released after nearly two hours. He said there was no immediate decision on whether to charge them with sedition.

Last month, Lim — one of Mahathir’s oldest political rivals and a respected figure among the large ethnic Chinese minority — was detained in northern Ipoh town for the same offense, but was not charged.

Malaysia’s strict sedition laws make it a crime to threaten racial harmony or incite hatred against the king, federal government or judicial system. Offenders face a three-year jail sentence and a fine.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters that Lim faces more arrests if he continues to distribute sensitive material, but the government has “no plans to take stiffer action against him.”

Loke said that Lim and his supporters were arrested while distributing the pamphlets in a seaside district popular with tourists.

The pamphlets criticized Mahathir’s remarks last year that Malaysia was “in effect” an Islamic state. Lim has demanded that Mahathir clarify his remarks to assure non-Muslim minorities their rights will be safe.

Malaysia’s constitution enshrines Islam as the official religion, but also guarantees freedom of religion and secular laws.

Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia want to change the constitution to formally declare the country an Islamic state and apply Islamic laws to non-Muslims. But Mahathir has said that Malaysia is in effect already an Islamic state because Islam is the official religion and Muslims are subject to Islamic laws.