An Australian lawmaker returned to Melbourne today after being expelled from Malaysia where he was due to hold meetings with politicians, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, as the country gears up for elections.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who said he was detained in Kuala Lumpur yesterday for his pro-democracy views, has previously criticized Malaysia’s democratic processes in Australia’s parliament. Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters she was “surprised and disappointed” by the incident.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who must dissolve parliament by April 28 ahead of holding elections, is fighting to retain power for a coalition that has governed the Southeast Asian nation since independence in 1957. Xenophon landed in Kuala Lumpur ahead of a planned visit by a delegation of Australian lawmakers, which is now canceled.
“It’s quite disturbing,” Anwar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday on the detention of Xenophon, whom he described as a friend. The incident shows “that the government is not prepared for international observers and to have a transparent, clean process” for the elections, he said.
The delegation, which was to include the ruling Labor Party’s Steve Georganas, the Liberal Party’s Mal Washer and the National Party’s John Williams, had been planned two months ago, Xenophon told reporters in Melbourne today. While it wasn’t an official delegation on behalf of the Australian government, it was due to meet Nazri Aziz, Malaysia’s de facto law minister, on Feb. 19, he said.
The Malaysian government has “miscalculated because this was going to be a low-key visit,” said Xenophon, who added he has a defamation suit pending against government-backed media in the nation. “It’s spectacularly backfired on them. If it means that more Australians and more people in the region are aware of just how dire the state of Malaysian democracy is, and how it really is at the crossroads, that’s a good thing.”
The lawmakers were scheduled to meet Anwar on Feb. 18, Xenophon said. They also expected to discuss the forthcoming polls with officials from the Election Commission, he said.
The lawmaker from South Australia state said he was told by police upon arrival “they had orders from above, that I was a security risk and I had to be deported,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in a live phone interview yesterday. Although told by officers he was not allowed to use his mobile phone, they didn’t confiscate it, he said.
Xenophon today said he met with Anwar in Australia in 2010 and last year as an observer attended his trial for sodomy, in which Anwar was acquitted. Xenophon’s been placed on a watchlist and is banned from re-entering the country, he said.
“We made immediate and strenuous representations on his behalf, not only in relation to him being detained but in terms of him being allowed to be in Malaysia,” Gillard told reporters in Melbourne today. “Clearly we didn’t succeed. We continue to pursue this issue with the Malaysian government.”
The senator was denied entry for violating Malaysian law during a previous visit, Malaysia’s immigration department said yesterday, claiming that Xenophon participated in an illegal street protest in Kuala Lumpur last year.
“Malaysia is a free and democratic country, but no one is above the law,” Alias Ahmad, Director-General of Immigration Department, said in an e-mailed statement. “Authorities will take the appropriate action against any individual deemed to have violated national laws.”
Xenophon is pursuing a defamation case against Malaysian government-backed media organizations, he said, without identifying them. The groups published a speech he gave criticizing Scientology and replaced that word with “Islam,” the lawmaker said.
Najib, 59, saw his popularity rating fall to the lowest level in 16 months in December, according to the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. That month he said his National Front coalition aimed to regain the two-thirds parliamentary majority it lost in 2008.
Anwar’s People’s Alliance, which tested official tolerance for public dissent on Jan. 12 by holding a rally in Kuala Lumpur, controls four out of the country’s 13 states, including Selangor and Penang.
“This act of detention and proposed deportation for partisan political reasons is therefore a gross abuse of power,” Anwar said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “It is also clearly a violation of international protocol.”
Fired as deputy prime minister in 1998 by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar was sentenced to nine years in jail for sodomy and a separate corruption charge at that time, before being released in 2004 after Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sex conviction. He was ineligible for office until 2008.
Anwar won back the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat in the northern state of Penang in August 2008, after his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail vacated it to enable him to compete.
Malaysia’s elections are widely expected to be held between the third week of March and second week of April, according to a note by Barclays Plc dated Feb. 1.
The Malaysian Bar Council said the government action against the Australian senator was absurd and shameful.
“Criticism of policy and governance must be respected and received without reprisal,” Lim Chee Wee, president of the council, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Any other reaction would be a sign of insecurity, and would disrespect the rule of law.”
A diplomatic incident between Australia and Malaysia wouldn’t be the first. In 1993, then-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called Mahathir a “recalcitrant.” That led the National Front leader to threaten to reduce trade ties with Australia before Keating apologized.
Malaysia and Australia signed a free-trade agreement in May 2012. Two-way trade between the nations totaled A$14.2 billion ($14.6 billion) in the year to June 30, 2012, according to Australian government figures.
“Australia’s relationship with Malaysia is underpinned by strong people-to-people links and a significant program of two-way, high-level visits across a broad range of portfolios,” the Department of Foreign Affairs says in a briefing on its website.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who last visited Malaysia Nov. 3-7, told reporters in Sydney today that he didn’t expect relations between the two countries to be damaged by the incident.