A controversial Malaysian government move to give authorities the power to hold people for years without charge was headed for parliamentary approval after it was passed at the lower house.
The move by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s long-ruling coalition has sparked an uproar among the opposition and activists who denounce it as a step back towards the tough authoritarian rule that Najib had pledged to end.
The amendment to a 1959 crime prevention law allows authorities to hold crime suspects for an initial two years which can be extended indefinitely without charge. The government says police need that to deal with a recent burst of gun violence.
But preventive detention is a highly charged issue in Malaysia, whose 56-year-old ruling coalition has been accused of regularly using previous tough laws to silence dissent.
Lawmakers and media reports said parliament’s lower house passed the amendments early on Thursday, shortly after midnight.
“It’s unconstitutional to us. It takes away the right to liberty. And the law is drafted in such a way that the net can cover everyone,” Tian Chua, a senior opposition politician, told the AFP news agency.
The passage comes despite a pledge last week by the government to take into account concerns that have been raised.
Senate approval is still required, but that is virtually assured as the Barisan Nasional (National Front) ruling coalition controls the body.
Under public pressure for reform, Najib in 2011 abolished two tough, decades-old laws that allowed indefinite detention without trial, touting the move as a shift towards a more democratic society.
Najib said this week the crime amendments would not be abused, and his home minister insisted they were far weaker than the earlier security laws.
“I assure you again, this would not be used against someone just because we have political differences,” Zahid Hamidi, the home minister, told parliament just before it voted, Malaysian media reported.
But Najib’s opponents have accused him of swerving to the right after winning May general elections on promises of reform.
Police blame dozens of shootings in recent months on a turf war by gang members they say were freed when the previous security laws were scrapped.
They have pushed for stronger powers, but the opposition says police already have enough.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement that “Malaysia is taking a huge step backwards on rights.”
He called the amendments “methods that do little to curtail crime, but threaten everyone’s liberty”.