The neatly dressed, clean-shaven, 46-year-old lawyer who entered the Kamunting political detention camp in northern Perak state 18 months ago emerged a free man on Saturday, looking worse for wear. Lawyer Uthayakumar Ponnusamy walked out wearing tattered prison clothes. Slimmer and dishevelled, he sported a salt-and-pepper beard that reached to his chest. 'Don't be alarmed by the appearance,' he said. 'I am a Hindu and this is how Hindus have to appear when in penance. I regard the 18 months in detention as a sacrifice for the Indian community.' As a lawyer and politician, he championed the interests of the Indian community for more than 15 years, culminating in a huge anti-government Hindu protest in November 2007 against alleged discrimination and marginalisation by the Malay-dominated government. Mr Uthayakumar was arrested a month after that protest. Overnight, he became a hero for the 2 million-strong community, mostly descendants of 19th century Tamil labourers brought by British colonials to work the rubber plantations. Mr Uthayakumar remains as fiery and uncompromising as before his arrest, and blames the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) for policies that favour Malays and sideline minorities. 'I am more determined than ever to continue to fight for justice and a larger share of the national wealth for Indians,' he said.Outside his house in Seremban, 70km south of Kuala Lumpur, scores of supporters celebrated his release. 'Freedom is incredible,' he said, adding only individuals who had been unjustly detained could feel the joy of being free again. 'The feeling overwhelms.' The government said Mr Uthayakumar and four other Hindu leaders arrested in 2007 were freed because 'it was an appropriate time'. Up to his arrest, Mr Uthayakumar built a formidable reputation as a champion of Indian rights. He fought to stop temple demolitions, used his legal skills to defend evicted Indian squatters, and fought authorities on numerous other issues. He formed the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) in 2007 and shot to fame with the Hindu protest, inviting swift retaliation from former prime minister Abdullah Badawi. A month later, the government banned Hindraf and arrested Mr Uthayakumar and the four others, holding them without trial until their release on Saturday. 'I was prepared for a long stay and never expected to be released this early,' Mr Uthayakumar said, adding that he kept sane in detention by 'not letting the mind wander'. His immediate plans are to rest and probably form a political party. Joining the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the Keadilan party of Anwar Ibrahim is 'out of the question'. 'Indians are now fragmented and I want to unite them under one organisation. That is my plan,' he said, adding that united Indians would have a bigger say, even as a minority. With Malay support divided between Umno and the Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, Indians - although comprising just 10 per cent of the population - can have greater political clout, he said. 'We must not vote for trinkets as before, but vote smart for maximum gains. That's the goal.' Hindraf's chairman, Waytha Moorthy, said yesterday he would return to Malaysia from self-imposed exile in Britain after the release of his colleagues.