Malaysia approves new anti-terror act

Malaysian bill includes clause that reintroduces detention without trial, three years after it was revoked

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Malaysia's parliament has passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill in a bid to contain ISIS and other terrorism-related ideologies in the country.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act includes a clause that reintroduces detention without trial, three years after it was revoked.

Despite strong opposition and comparison with the scrapped Internal Security Act (ISA), the bill was passed after 15 hours of debate early morning Tuesday with 79 votes for and 60 votes against.

The once-powerful ISA was used by previous governments to detain individuals -- including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng -- without trial.

Ibrahim is currently serving a five-year jail term -- which many see as politically motivated -- after being convicted in February of sodomizing his former aide.

Prime Minister Najib Razak -- who became premier in 2009 -- repealed the ISA in 2012.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has claimed that the new anti-terror act totally differs from the ISA.

The government tabled the anti-terror bill last Monday, which empowered authorities to detain "terror" suspects without trial and disallowed judicial reviews on such decisions by a Prevention of Terrorism Board.

Under the law, suspects can be first detained for a maximum of 59 days -- including the initial remand period -- before being brought to the board, which can then order further detention of up to two years.

Following this, the detention period can be renewed if the board decides there are reasonable grounds. It can also direct a person to be set free if deemed necessary.

The bill does not allow any judicial review in any court, and notes that no court should have jurisdiction over decisions by the board in its discretionary power.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Tuesday that the new law was proof that the government has failed to uphold basic human rights.

"The passage of this law is a giant step backwards for human rights in Malaysia that fundamentally calls into question the government's commitment to basic rights that are critical to the rule of law in a functioning democracy," he stated.

"By stripping accused persons of the right to trial in a court, access to legal counsel, and other legal protections if they are accused under the very broad provisions of this law, the government is continuing its slide into rights-abusing rule."

The new law also raises concerns that Malaysia will return to past practices when government agents frequently used fear of indefinite detention to intimidate and silence outspoken critics, Robertson added.

The bill was passed hours after police announced the detention of 17 suspected militants believed to be planning attacks in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said those arrested, the youngest just 14, were planning to attack police stations and army bases to gather weapons.

Two of the suspects had just returned from Syria, police said.

Efforts to strengthen another controversial measure -- Malaysia’s sedition act -- also drew criticism from an international human rights group Tuesday.

In a statement, the International Commission of Jurists said the Malaysian government had been employing the law "with increasing frequency and severity to suppress and punish criticism."

The statement referred to amendments to the act, tabled in the parliament earlier in the day, that would deny bail to suspects charged under the colonial-era legislation, or would prevent those released on bail from leaving the country.

Emerlynne Gil, the group’s international legal advisor for Southeast Asia, warned that the law "has been used against the government’s political opposition much more frequently than in previous years."

According to the commission’s records, at least 36 academicians, lawyers, politicians, students, and activists had been investigated, arrested, or charged since January.

Razak’s government has been condemned both locally and internationally for a wave of sedition cases against opponents.