Mahathir bans 'Independent' in blast at press

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TWO British newspapers, including the Independent, have been banned in Malaysia after an outburst by the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who accused British journalists of trying to "destroy" Malaysia and blamed them for the economic crisis besetting the region.

Copies of last Monday's Independent and Sunday's Observer have been impounded because they carried articles on alleged brutality against illegal immigrants. Distributors in Kuala Lumpur do not know when, if at all, they will be made available again for sale.

Malaysian papers yesterday carried remarks by Dr Mahathir denying allegations that Malaysian police poisoned, beat and shot dead Indonesian migrant workers in camps while rounding them up for deportation. "Why should we kill people?" he was quoted as saying by the Sun newspaper. "They [the British media] are the ones who are doing it as a way to cover up their role in reducing Indonesia to a state of poverty and creating unemployment there.

"Their poison is to make Indonesia poorer, to devalue the rupiah, to make 20 million Indonesians unemployed. These problems and others ... are not caused by the Indonesian government but by those who wrote such reports."

When asked about his government's refusal to allow access to the camps, Dr Mahathir said: "Human-rights groups would not be satisfied until the detainees are placed in five-star hotels. If the human-rights groups are willing to finance, we are willing to put them in Shangri-La" [one of Kuala Lumpur's most expensive hotels]. Dr Mahathir is noted for his trenchant reaction to external criticism. Last year he said a Jewish conspiracy, masterminded by the American financier George Soros, was behind Malaysia's economic troubles.

A spokesperson for Marican, which distributes the Independent, said foreign papers are always delayed when they contain articles on sensitive subjects. "Sometimes they release it and black the article out, sometimes they release it without that page," the spokesperson said.

The decision is made by the Prime Minister's office. "It goes right to Dr Mahathir, or at least to his officials." The Independent's typical daily circulation in Malaysia is 16 copies.

r A Malaysian MP, Lim Guan Eng, has been given 18 months' jail for having printed a pamphlet that questioned Malaysia's political system. Though his last appeal will be heard by the Federal Court, he expects to lose, AP reports.

He and his father, MPs for a combined 41 years, believe that as Malaysia struggles against economic collapse, the opposition has become scapegoat. Mr Lim was convicted last year on charges of sedition and printing false news in a pamphlet in 1995 entitled "The True Story." The Court of Appeal in April then stiffened his penalty and sentenced him to two 18-month, concurrent sentences for each charge. In the pamphlet, he questioned the government's decision not to press statutory rape charges against a former governor of Malacca state. He also demanded to know why the 15-year-old girl was detained for months in "protective custody" after she told prosecutors about Abdul Rahim.