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Malaysia Reintroduces Indefinite Detention to Stop 'Terrorists' — and Maybe to Quell Opposition

The controversial new law has been widely described as a revival of the country's feared Internal Security Act, with critics saing it heralds a "u-turn" towards authoritarianism.
Image via Reuters

Malaysia's parliament have voted to reintroduce indefinite detention for individuals perceived as a threat to the country's security, a measure critics say is authoritarian and a blow to human rights in the country.

Lawmakers voted late on Monday night to bring in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, widely described as a revival of the feared Internal Security Act, a colonial era law abolished in 2012 amid talk of a new dawn for Malaysian civil liberties.


The debate lasted more than 10 hours, resulting in 79 votes to 60 in favor of approving the bill. The law must still be passed by the country's senate, but with the chamber dominated by the ruling party, it is expected to be quickly approved.

This comes after a government white paper — released in November — warned that the Islamic State (IS) was attempting to infiltrate political parties in Malaysia. At the same time, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that 39 Malaysians had been identified as participants in militant activities in Syria. "I am worried that 40 more will face the same fate if the authorities do not arrest them," he told the parliament.

"I urge all Malaysians especially youths and parents to reject this extremist ideology which can destroy the future of all. The peace and harmony achieved all this while is priceless and should be preserved," Najib said.

On Tuesday, the Malaysian leadership also introduced proposed alterations to the Sedition Act, which would bring the maximum prison sentence from five to 20 years, and rule out bail in some situations.

Najib has previously said that the new laws are vital to strengthen Malaysia's fight against both "lone wolf" attacks and Islamist militant cells.

However, the power they give to state authorities has alarmed human rights activists and proponents of free speech who worry about the way they will be utilized.

Under the anti-terrorism law, an individual can be detained without trial for as many as 59 days at the discretion of the police. After that, detentions must be approved by a "terrorism board," but can continue for two years, after which extensions may be granted. A judiciary or open court never factors in these decisions.


People traveling to or from Malaysia can also have their travel documents — both Malaysian and foreign — revoked if they are suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorism.

The renewed velocity of legislative reform comes after a weekend warning about an imminent terror attack, and the subsequent announcement from the police that they had arrested 17 people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in Kuala Lumpur.

According to Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi, the detained were a mixed group. Two of the arrested were members of the army, two had recently returned from Syria, one was a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah militant group from Indonesia, and anoter was aged just 14.

Malaysian Chief of Police Khalid Abu Baker released a statement on Tuesday, where he said: "The purpose of this new terrorist group is to establish an Islamic country a la IS in Malaysia."

The timing of the new law — coinciding with the 17 arrests — has been seen as suspicious by some. Yin Shao Loong, the executive director of Malaysian think tank Institut Rakyat, told VICE News: "I suspect that all those events were quite closely linked, possibly choreographed, it's impossible to say."

He added: 'All the ducks lined up — it's a rather remarkable coincidence."

Yin said that this law had "bulldozed through parliament," and he felt it marked a "terrible u-turn back to granting tremendous authoritarian powers to detain people without trial and also to restrict their geographical mobility."


Related: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim jailed for five years in controversial sodomy case. Read more here.

The law echoes the former Internal Security Act, which ended up targeting opposition politicians, activists, academics, social workers, and religious figures, along with other dissenting voices. Yin said this "became a means to ensure and protect the monopoly on government power."

Malaysia's Internal Security Act was abolished in 2012 "to quite a fanfare", Yin said, noting that in the period since, there have been calls from hardliners to reintroduce the measures. Now, he said, those calls have apparently been answered, despite some "fig leaves" concessions — such as protections against the persecution of individuals based on their political belief.

Yin said government control was tightening again, with at least 154 Malaysians have been arrested on sedition and related charges since February.

Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi was himself detained under the Internal Security Act in 1998. Announcing the new law, Zahid claimed that the period in detention had done him good and "restored his mind."

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, described the new law as being "like a legal zombie returned from the grave of the discredited and abusive Internal Security Act. By proposing this legislation, the Malaysian government is signaling its willingness to return to Malaysia's past policies of repression."


Malaysian activist Michelle Yesudas — campaign coordinator at "Lawyers for Liberty" — tweeted: "You know why bails exist? Because the system knows that the person hasn't been found guilty, so there is no legitimacy in their imprisonment."

The amendments to the Sedition Act to deny bail and to get rid of the fine option kinda looks like this. — Michelle Yesudas (@chelle_yesudas)April 7, 2015

The anti-terrorism moves come in the wake of other charges and arrests.

In February, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia's largest opposition movement, had a conviction for sodomy upheld — condemning him to five years behind bars. He maintains these charges were trumped up in an attempt to prevent him from challenging the country's leadership.

Another person currently facing jail time is Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar. The nine counts of sedition he has been accused of could earn him a prison sentence of up to 43 years.

I will be charge with NINE charges under The Sedition Act tomorrow morning & the bail is about RM50,000

— Zunar Cartoonist (@zunarkartunis)April 2, 2015

Cartoon Zunar: Until last drop! — Zunar Cartoonist (@zunarkartunis)April 3, 2015

Earlier this year Malaysia's monarch issued a warning that Islamic extremism in the predominantly Muslim country is reaching dangerous levels.

But Yin said the population was not generally anxious about the issue: "There isn't a large amount of fear, I wouldn't compare it to how it is in the UK."

He added: "There are radicals being produced but they're leaving the country, they're going overseas to Syria and other countries to make trouble. The most fundamental problem actually in Malaysia is the problem of extremist fundamentalist messages being taught alongside religious education, and that kind of phenomenon is not being addressed by this new legislation."

Related: Dozens of migrants bound for Malaysia feared dead as trawler sinks in Bay of Bengal. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd