KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's Parliament has approved a security law that gives sweeping security powers to a council led by the prime minister, in a move slammed by rights groups and critics as a step toward a dictatorship.
The National Security Council bill was passed late Thursday by a majority vote after hours of heated debate, with opposition lawmakers voicing fears the prime minister now has power to declare a state of emergency without having to seek consent from Malaysia's King.
The bill gives the National Security Council the authority to impose strict policing in an area deemed to face a security risk. Once a security area is declared, security forces would be allowed, among other things, to impose curfews and would have wide powers of arrest, search and seizure without a warrant.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called the proposed law a "frightening" tool for repression, adding to other abusive laws already being used by Prime Minister Najib Razak and his embattled government against critics.
Najib, who is under investigation in a $700 million financial scandal, has said the bill is aimed at countering terrorism threats from within and outside the country, and would strengthen the National Security Council so that it was on par with similar agencies in the U.S. and Britain.
Cabinet minister Shahidan Kassim said during the debate that the bill deals only with security threats in specific areas, while provisions for declaring an emergency under the constitution deal with large-scale crises.
But opposition lawmaker N.Surendran said the bill placed no limits to the size of the security area, meaning the whole of the country could be declared a security area. He said the bill puts an "excessive concentration of powers" in the prime minister's hands.
"Now we know what the path to Malaysian dictatorship looks like," Human Rights Watch said. "The law is far broader than can be justified by any real threat to Malaysia's national security, and creates a real risk of abuse."
In April, the government revived detention without trial with a new anti-terror law to fight Islamic militants. The law allows authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial, with no court challenges permitted. Rights groups have raised concerns the law could be used to intimidate and silence vocal critics.
About 150 Malaysians have been arrested since 2013 for suspected links to the Islamic State group, including some plotting attacks in the country.