KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia revived detention without trial when lawmakers approved an anti-terror law Tuesday that the government said was needed to fight Islamic militants, but critics assailed as a giant step backward for human rights in the country.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act bill was passed by Parliament's lower house in the wee hours of the morning after hours of debate, with 79 votes in favor and 60 against. The law allows authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial, with no court challenges permitted.
The government said the measure was needed because dozens of Malaysians have been arrested since 2013 for suspected links to the Islamic State group. Authorities on Sunday arrested 17 people, including an Indonesian militant, accused of planning to rob banks and attack police stations and army camps to obtain weapons.
Critics said the new law was a revival of the Internal Security Act, which was repealed in 2012. New York-based Human Rights Watch called it a "giant step backwards for human rights" in Malaysia, and said it raised concerns that the government will once again use the law to intimidate and silence vocal critics.
"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politically motivated, abusive state actions that many had thought was closed when the abusive Internal Security Act was revoked in 2012," the group's deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said in a statement.
Home Minister Zahid Hamidi, however, said the new law was crucial to curb the rise of Islamic militants. "This is a real threat, and prevention measures are needed," he said during the debate.
It will take weeks before the bill becomes law, as it needs approval from the upper house and royal assent by the king, but those are considered formalities.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the 17 people, aged from 14 to 49, were arrested during a secret meeting Sunday to plot attacks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's biggest city, and in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
The group was planning to kidnap several high-profile individuals, rob banks for money, raid police stations and army camps for weapons, and procure more firearms from another terror group in a neighboring country, Khalid said in a statement Tuesday.
The senior member of the cell is a man who was arrested in 2001 under the former Internal Security Act and has undergone militant training in Afghanistan and Indonesia, Khalid said. Another key member is a 38-year-old religious teacher.
Khalid said both men were in Syria last year for militant training and returned to Malaysia in December.
"The aim for this new terror group is to form an Islamic state in Malaysia," he said.
Also arrested Sunday were two army personnel, a security guard who has access to firearms and an Indonesian militant who is skilled in handling weapons, Khalid said.
The government has proposed another new law, to be debated by lawmakers this week, that would empower authorities to suspend or revoke the travel documents of any citizens or foreigners believed to be engaging in or supporting terrorist acts. Other proposals would increase penalties for terror-related acts.