Updated at 5:26 p.m. ET on 2018-07-23
Malaysia’s main opposition party warned on Monday that a newly announced plan by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to repeal a controversial anti-terrorism law, which allows for detention without trial, could threaten national security.
Since taking power after the May 9 general election, Mahathir’s government has been championing the return of “the rule of law” in the Muslim-majority nation and has vowed to rescind repressive legislation.
The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 – also known as SOSMA – was enacted to protect the nation, said Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who recently replaced Najib as leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which now finds itself in the opposition after nearly 61 years in power. Over the weekend, Mahathir said his government would abolish SOSMA.
“The country now is facing security threats that are well-planned and remotely controlled,” the Malaysian Star newspaper quoted Zahid as saying.
“With the rapid change of political landscape locally and internationally, laws such as SOSMA … are very timely,” he said.
In a speech on Sunday night, Mahathir took aim at the law that had been implemented during Najib’s rule.
“Najib’s law allows a person to be arrested and not to be taken to court, and if that person died, there will be neither inquiry nor action taken against those who killed him,” Mahathir said, referring to the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, also known as SOSMA.
“That is the law passed by Najib and we will repeal that law," Mahathir, 93, said in a speech during a fundraising dinner Sunday night in the district of Klang outside Kuala Lumpur.
Under SOSMA, which was implemented on July 31, 2012, Malaysian authorities can hold suspects up to 28 days without trial. The law replaced the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for detention of up to two years without requiring authorities to present the suspect in court. During his previous 22-year stint as prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir led UMNO and was known to have resorted to having people arrested under the ISA.
“The people will be protected by fair laws, so that if they committed any offence, they will be judged by the court and the court will determine whether or not the person is guilty,” Mahathir said.
Zahid, who served as home minister under Najib’s government, told parliament in April last year that 979 people had been detained under SOSMA since its inception.
Among the prominent figures arrested under SOSMA was Maria Chin Abdullah, chairwoman of the election watchdog Bersih. She was arrested Nov. 18, 2016 and held in custody for 11 days on allegations that she was attempting to undermine parliamentary democracy by staging rallies calling for free and fair elections.
Syahredzan Johan, a prominent legal activist, said in a statement Monday that Maria’s arrest was an example of how SOSMA was abused by the previous government despite prior assurances that it would not be used for political reprisals.
“It is clear that SOSMA as a law is inherently unfair, arbitrary in its execution and easy to be abused,” said Syahredzan who applauded Mahathir’s decision.
He said Malaysia needs a law that specifically targets terrorism, but emphasized that it should be in accordance with internationally accepted standards.
Malaysia’s counter-terror officers have arrested hundreds of people suspected of having links to terror groups during the past five years, but the multiracial nation of 32 million residents has suffered only one terror attack.
On June 26, 2016, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a grenade blast that injured eight patrons at a nightclub in Puchong, about 12.8 km (8 miles) from Kuala Lumpur.
Revise, but do not abolish, experts say
Geshina Ayu, a counter-radicalism expert at Science University of Malaysia, told BenarNews that the government and police should review and improve existing laws to encapsulate crimes related to acts of terror.
“It is possible to amend SOSMA by taking in the views of various stakeholders and not only people in the criminal justice system, but also those who deal directly with criminals and victims,” Geshina said.
In 2015, the Malaysian parliament also approved the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows police to restrict the movements of suspects by using electronic monitoring devices. That amendment to Malaysia’s anti-terrorism laws allows authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial for renewable two-year periods.
Aruna Gopinath, an international security expert at the National Defense University of Malaysia, expressed concern over Mahathir’s decision.
“In matters dealing with terrorism, the government should not repeal the act,” she told BenarNews. “We should be firm so terrorist know not to play around with Malaysia.”