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Nov 9, 1996: Catherine McGrath, Singapore-based correspondent for Australia's ABC radio, was reporting live via a mobile phone when the order of arrest was given.

"Wait a minute," she told her colleague at the other end of the line. Turning to Dang Wangi police chief Zainal Abidin Ali, she asked, "Are we also being arrested?"

She was referring to other journalists who were with her. "Arrest all," was Zainal's terse reply.

Roger Mitton, the Malaysian correspondent for (the now defunct regional magazine) Asiaweek , rolled his eyes. Bangkok-based The Nation's Sonny Inbaraj shook his head in disbelief.

The mass arrests came without warning.

Five hours had elapsed since a Umno Youth-led mob of 400 men - calling themselves the Malaysian Peoples' Action Front - had stormed Kuala Lumpur's Asia Hotel and went on a rampage in the bid to stop the Second Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor, also known as Apcet II.

The government had earlier told the organisers not to hold the meeting. But hiring a mob to physically stop a private meeting on private premises is a clear transgression of the rule of law.

The mob destroyed hotel property, hurled verbal abuses and manhandled participants. Tension was high - just about any response to the mob's provocation could have easily resulted in a free-for-all. To their credit, the participants kept their cool.

It wasn't till an hour later that the police trudged in to restore order. The participants thought their nightmare was over. They were dead wrong. It was only beginning.

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