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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The leader of Malaysia's ruling ethnic Indian party called on Sunday for the release of five Hindu rights activists who were jailed without charge late last year after organizing a big anti-government protest.
S. Samy Vellu, whose Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) is part of the ruling coalition, originally backed the decision to jail the activists, but he has changed his mind after losing his seat in a protest vote by ethnic Indians at elections held this month.
The government arrested the activists under a colonial-era internal security law in December, a month after more than 10,000 ethnic Indians protested in the capital accusing the government of discrimination and the MIC of selling out their interests.
Vellu, who has clung on to the party leadership despite being widely blamed for the backlash at the March 8 polls, was quoted by state news agency Bernama as saying that at least four of the five should be immediately freed, one on grounds of ill health.
"I will raise it with the prime minister...," Vellu was quoted as telling reporters. "If he wants to release all (five) of them, it is up to him. We have no objection. We also don't want them to be kept inside for too long a period," he added.
"I had already made some move on this earlier but I did not tell anyone. I will now make a firm move to see what can be done by the government with regard to their plight," he said.
The detention of the five activists, all professionals, has become an embarrassment for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's multi-racial coalition, initially straining ties with India and later backfiring domestically at the elections.
One of the activists, lawyer M. Manoharan, was nominated as a candidate by an opposition party and, though locked up throughout the election campaign, won his seat with a convincing majority.
Manoharan's Democratic Action Party is fighting in the courts for his release so he can take his seat in the new parliament.
Vellu said another detainee, lawyer R. Kenghadaran, 40, was very ill.
Reporting by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Alex Richardson