In a report released on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to repeal the Internal Security Act /*12(ISA), which allows authorities to detain individuals indefinitely without charge, calling it a "recipe for abuse".
Most of the 112 people currently detained under ISA are alleged members of al-Qaida-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah and another alleged extremist organisation, Kampulan Mujahideen Malaysia.
All were arrested in a crackdown launched four years ago and none has been charged or tried.
However, Western countries that were staunch critics of the ISA, notably the US, have "been silent" since the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the report said.
Human Rights Watch's report quoted an unidentified senior State Department official as telling it in December 2003 that what Washington was doing in Guantanamo - the prison camp to hold terrorist suspects - had robbed it of the moral authority to criticise Malaysia's ISA.
"We're on thin ice to push on this," he was quoted as saying.
A senior Malaysian official confirmed Washington's dilemma. Zainal Abidin, a ministerial ranking official in the Foreign Ministry, said that strong laws were needed in the post-11 September climate.
ISA is "still very relevant to Malaysia especially in the face of the global threat of terrorism. Even other countries like the US and Britain are beginning to copy our ISA", he told The Associated Press.
Malaysia insists strong laws are
needed in the post 9/11 climate
Malaysia's Internal Security Act allows the government to detain people indefinitely without trial and is a legacy of British rule in the late 1940s, when the then colony declared a state of emergency in its fight against communist rebels.
The communist insurgency had already fizzled out by the time Malaysia gained independence in 1957, but the emergency provisions continued in the 1960 act.
It began to be used against a range of perceived security threats, to stifle dissent, critics say.
Abidin declined to address specific allegations made by Human Rights Watch of prisoner abuse at the Kamunting Detention Centre where the ISA detainees are kept.
"Our ministers and deputy ministers visit the camp from time to time to look into any complaints," Zainal said. "I don't think there is any abuse."
The Human Rights Watch report documents the stories of more than 25 detainees in Kamunting, 250km north of Kuala Lumpur.
"Our ministers and deputy ministers visit the camp from time to time to look into any complaints. I don't think there is any abuse"
Malaysian Foreign Ministry official
"Those held under the ISA are defined as a group that has virtually no rights, so it is hardly surprising that prison guards treat them as less than human," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the department of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said the US had stopped pressuring Malaysia to end its use of the ISA.
"They are not happy if we release ISA detainees because they think that we are not cooperating in the fight against terrorism," he told Reuters.
"If the Americans feel strongly we should retain the ISA, then we should cooperate with them."