Fears over Malaysian detention-without-trial plan

Similar tough security measures in the past have been used on political opponents

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 4:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 3:19am

Malaysia's government proposed an amendment to crime laws yesterday that would give authorities the power to hold suspects for years without trial, in what critics said was a lurch back to draconian security policies that were only recently eased.

The government is justifying the proposed toughening of security laws as necessary to curb a rise in violent crime in recent months, including the murder of a prominent former banker in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, which has alarmed the public.

But the move to amend the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act has political resonance in a country where tough security laws have been used in the past to detain opposition figures and government critics and following an election in May that deepened ethnic and political divisions.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has moved to appease conservative factions in the ruling United Malays National Organisation in recent weeks, signalling that the weak election victory has blunted his ability to push liberal reforms.

Teo Nie Ching, an opposition member of parliament, said the new proposal appeared to be a "fundamental breach of human rights".

"It seems we are going back to the time of the ISA (Internal Security Act) even though it is called prevention of crime," she said.

The act, which allowed for indefinite detention, was among several tough security laws repealed by Najib in 2011.

Under the amendment, a Prevention of Crime Board will be able to issue a detention order for two years, which could be renewed indefinitely .

The detention could be ordered if the board is satisfied that it is "in the interest of public order, public security or prevention of crime", the draft bill says.

Najib repealed a series of colonial-era security laws in 2011, including the ISA and Emergency Ordinance, that allowed indefinite detention without trial, saying he was seeking a new balance between national security and ensuring civil liberties.

The moves were seen as an attempt to make the ruling coalition more appealing to Malaysia's growing middle class and burgeoning youth population. But many of those voters rejected the Barisan Nasional coalition in May, leaving Najib vulnerable to Umno traditionalists who oppose more liberal security policies.

Police chiefs have appealed for a replacement for the Emergency Ordinance, blaming its repeal for the release of hundreds of hard-core criminals. .

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi was quoted by online media portals as telling reporters the new proposal was not "draconian" and that the government would listen to criticism.