Ruling Malaysian coalition veterans led by influential former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad have accused Prime Minister Najib Razak of abuse of power for detaining a former Penang Umno leader and a lawyer under an anti-terror law.
Khairuddin Abu Hassan had been on a global campaign to highlight alleged graft involving state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and its advisory chief, Datuk Seri Najib, before his arrest last month. Lawyer Matthias Chang was arrested last week when he visited his client Khairuddin.
Both Khairuddin and Chang, a former political secretary of Tun Dr Mahathir's, were charged on Monday (Oct 12) under the Penal Code with attempting to sabotage Malaysia's economy and financial system. They had been held under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) 2012, which has been used to deny them access to legal representation or bail.
"Do you think Matthias Chang or Khairuddin are terrorists? People have lost their right to seek redress through the government and through the laws," said Dr Mahathir at a press conference. "They (the government) are defining sabotage according to their own needs without regard for the law."
Sitting next to Dr Mahathir at the meeting was his long-time political nemesis in Umno, former Cabinet minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, in a powerful signal that the 1MDB saga that has rocked Malaysia has brought the two men to the same table.
Other Barisan Nasional figures at the conference were Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, party vice-president Shafie Apdal, former Umno secretary-general Sanusi Junid, and former Malaysian Chinese Association president Ong Tee Keat.
Rumours have been rife about Tan Sri Razaleigh burying the decades-old hatchet to join Dr Mahathir in unseating Mr Najib.
Tengku Razaleigh failed to unseat Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister then, in an acrimonious 1987 Umno election battle and the duo have not been seen sitting down together publicly for some 20 years.
Mr Najib is facing calls to step down over allegations that billions are missing from 1MDB. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that nearly US$700 million (S$977 million) linked to the firm might have found its way into his personal bank accounts.
The Prime Minister has insisted that the money in his accounts is from political donations and not public funds.
"We think it is worse than draconian," Tengku Razaleigh said of the use of Sosma. Tengku Razaleigh, who is Malaysia's longest-serving MP, added: "There was a sigh of relief when ISA (Internal Security Act) was repealed. But Sosma interpreted in the way it is being used, we feel that is not right."
Datuk Seri Shafie, a member of the Cabinet - along with Tan Sri Muhyiddin - that approved Sosma in 2012, said "assurance was given, not just in Cabinet but in Parliament, that it would not involve politics".
Responding to the claims of abuse of Sosma, staunch Najib supporter Salleh Said Keruak reminded Dr Mahathir of arrests the former premier made using the ISA.
"Dr Mahathir must be reminded of many cases during his time when people who told the truth were arrested, charged and convicted for the crime of telling the truth," Datuk Seri Salleh, who is the Communications and Multimedia Minister, said in his blog.