Malaysia on Wednesday granted freedom to 125 mostly criminal suspects, in the government's latest move to abolish decades-old security laws that human rights and opposition groups have criticized as Draconian.
Parliament is expected to approve a bill this month to revoke the Restricted Residence Act as the next step. Since 1933, the British colonial-era act has enabled authorities to banish thousands of suspects to remote districts and force them to report regularly to police.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government was granting immediate freedom to all 125 people currently confined under the law, which has been used in the past against alleged members of criminal gangs, militant groups and illegal sports gambling networks. Many of the suspects had never been charged in court.
"This is only the beginning," Najib said in a speech to Parliament. "The government does not dream of holding absolute power ... because that would be against a democratic way of life."
The overhaul of security policies is expected to culminate in March with the repeal of the Internal Security Act, which has allowed the government to detain opposition critics, alleged militants and labor activists without trial.
Najib said the Restricted Residence Act was outdated partly because of technological advances. Criminals exiled to distant areas could now hatch their plots and communicate with others through the Internet, he said.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein assured Malaysians that the release of the 125 would not threaten the public. He declined to provide their identities, but people held under the Restricted Residence Act in the past two years include suspected robbery gang members and a religious teacher accused of spreading militant ideologies.
Opposition politicians have welcomed the planned repeal of the laws, which Najib announced last month. However, many of them consider it a ploy to boost the National Front ruling coalition's support ahead of general elections widely expected by mid-2012.
The government's softened stance on security regulations contrasts sharply with its statements in the past that authorities need sweeping powers to curtail risks to national stability.
Najib has said officials are crafting new laws to replace those abolished, but they would provide for more judicial oversight and only permit the detention without trial of terrorists.