Carrying a gun in Malaysia means death penalty

For Americans debating the merits of gun control Malaysia's answer to the problem may seem a bit harsh. It is hanging.

So far this year even men have hanged in Kuala Lumpur's Pudu prison for violating the country's tough Internal Security Act. five of these were sentenced for firearms possession.

They were among 55 prisoners sentenced to hanging under the act, which provides the death penalty for the possession of firearms. Three more executions are scheduled for April 4.

This year's executions, the first under 1975 amendments to the 20-year-old Internal Security Act, have provoked criticism both within and without Malaysia. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists has deplored the hanging and sent a cable to Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn asking him to cancel the executions.

Opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Lim Kit Siang has also urged a halt to the executions. He warned the hangings would "create national and international revulsion" against Malaysia. Earlier Malaysia's bar council urged its members to boycott cases tried under the Internal Security Act.

Lying just beneath the surface in this issue is the potentially explosive rivalry between the country's politically dominant Malays and its ethnic Chinese. (Of peninsular Malaysia's 9 million population about 3 million are Chinese and 1 million Indian.) Those so far executed are all Chinese, as are most of those awaiting hanging under the Internal Security Act.

In Malaysia there is a widespread feeling among ethnic Chinese that the harsh law as administered by a Malay-dominated government is a brutal repressive measure aimed at Chinese.

Indeed, opposition politicians, such as the Democratic Action Party's Lim Kit Siang, who criticize the hangings are Chinese.

The tough 1975 amendments to the act were added after an upsurge of communist terrorism attributed to Malaysia's largely ethnic Chinese community. In August 1975 the national monument in Kuala Lumpur was bombed, and there had been many assassinations of Malaysian police officers. Two men have been hanged for the murder of a Perak State police chief.

Up to now the mandatory death sentence for firearms possession had not been implemented. Public criticism of the measure grew in 1977 when a 14-year-old boy was sentenced to death for possessing a pistol. Eventually he was removed from death row and placed in a juvenile detention center.

Critics of the act have argued that at least before 1977 not enough distinction was made between mere firearms possession and possession of firearms for purposes of political subversion.

The death penalty should be reserved for "the worst cases" and not for the majority on death row "who did not have any element of political subversion in their cases," opposition parliamentarian Karpal Singh is quoted as saying.

Some observers believe the government already has quietly accepted this view. They say that since 1977 almost all persons accused of illegal firearms possession but not of subversive activities have been charged under the Firearms Increased Penalties Act, which provides a maximum 14 years' imprisonment. The seven hanged so far were tried before or during 1977.

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