The Malaysian House of Representatives early on Tuesday passed an amendment to the nation’s anti-terrorism laws, which permits authorities to hold suspected terrorists without trial for extendible two-year periods.
The passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) followed reports Monday that Malaysian authorities had arrested 17 suspected militants who, according to the chief of police, were plotting bomb attacks in Kuala Lumpur as well as kidnappings of prominent figures.
The group of suspects was inspired by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar said in a statement issued Tuesday. They were conspiring to rob banks and raid police station and army posts in order to get money and weapons for their plot, Khalid said.
“Seventeen people between the ages of 14 to 49 were arrested while they were holding a secret meeting to plan terror attacks [in the Kuala Lumpur area],” Agence France-Presse quoted Khalid as saying.
“The aim of this terror group was to form an IS-like Islamic state in Malaysia,” he added.
The police gave no other details about Sunday’s arrests by the Royal Malaysia Police’s counterterrorist wing. On Monday, Khalid tweeted that two of the suspects had recently returned from Syria.
Lawmakers in the Dewan Rakyat, parliament’s lower house, debated the POTA bill throughout Monday and overnight into Tuesday morning, when they voted to pass it.
Seventy-nine MPs from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition voted in favor and 60 MPs from the opposition voted against the bill, Malay Mail Online reported.
The government had pressed for its passage, arguing that it needed tougher anti-terrorist laws to fight a growing domestic threat from IS and home-grown supporters and recruits.
“This is a real threat and preventive measures must be carried out,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as telling parliament on Monday.
The bill’s introduction, however, raised alarms among opposition leaders, lawyers and human rights advocates who said its passage would resurrect the Internal Security Act (ISA), which the government revoked in 2012.
The ISA had allowed the authorities to detain suspects for two years without trial. The state had used it to lock up opposition figures and other governmental critics.
During Monday’s parliamentary debate, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance tried to introduce its own proposed amendments to the bill, but no changes were made as the chamber voted in favor of it.
“Pakatan Rakyat is committed to fight terrorism, and we take the terrorism issue seriously. At the same time, we would like to protect democracy, or whatever is left of democracy, in Malaysia,” Free Malaysia Today quoted Wong Chen, a leader from the alliance, as telling reporters on Monday.
“You cannot fight terrorism by suppressing or destroying democracy. That will never work,” he added.
Re-opening Pandora’s Box?
Reacting to the news about the bill’s passage, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the United States-based advocacy group, called it “a giant step backwards for human rights in Malaysia.”
The Malaysian government was “continuing its slide into rights-abusing rule,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“By restoring indefinite detention without trial, Malaysia has re-opened Pandora's Box for politically motivated, abusive state actions that many had thought was closed when the abusive Internal Security Act was revoked in 2012,” Robertson said.
“Passage of this legislation raises serious concerns that Malaysia will return to practices of the past when government agents frequently used fear of indefinite detention to intimidate and silence outspoken critics."
By BenarNews staff with details from news reports.