By Siva Sithraputhran
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian police, under pressure to tackle a rise in violent crime, have arrested more than 200 people since the weekend under a little used law that enables them to hold suspects for 72 days without charge.
The crackdown comes as Prime Minister Najib Razak faces calls from hardliners in his ruling party to reverse his liberalization of colonial-era security laws that had long been used to stifle government opponents as well as crime.
After his ruling coalition won a narrow election victory in May, Najib could face a challenge from the conservative wing of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization in party polls in October.
He said on Monday that his government was weighing the introduction of new laws that would balance the need to protect human rights with ensuring public order.
Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said more than 200 people had been detained under a rarely used section of the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act, which was used to keep order when Malaysia was still a fledgling nation.
"We're just carrying out our duty," he said.
The police force and the government have come under pressure due a spate of high-profile violent crimes, including the daytime gun murder of a prominent banker in central Kuala Lumpur late in July.
N. Surendran, vice president of the opposition Keadilan party and a practicing lawyer, called the 72-day detention without charge period "dangerous and excessive".
"The purpose of using this act is to punish the people arrested. We're strongly against it," he told Reuters.
Under the Prevention of Crime law, a suspect must appear before a magistrate within the first 24 hours of arrest before he can be held for up to 14 days. Two further extensions of 28 days each are possible with the consent of a magistrate.
On Monday, police shot dead five suspected gang members in a morning raid in the northern state of Penang. Police said the men opened fire on them and were killed in the ensuing shootout. The five, all members of Malaysia's ethnic Indian minority, were suspected to have been responsible for several murders, but their relatives have accused the police of shooting to kill.
"The government is committed to fostering a modern democracy, in which safety and security will not be compromised in our efforts to strengthen civil liberties," a government spokesperson told Reuters in an emailed statement.
Official data shows that violent crime rose by just 2 percent in the first half of the year compared with the corresponding period in 2012, but murders alone rose 11 percent.
Police have linked the spike to the 2011 repeal of a law allowing detention without trial for up to 60 days, saying it put about 2,000 hardened criminals back on the streets.
That was one of several draconian security laws that Najib repealed in a bid to burnish his credentials as a modernizer and appeal to Malaysia's growing middle class. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, an influential conservative who has criticized the liberalization, said recently that high crime was the "price to pay" for more freedom.
Malaysia's police force is itself under scrutiny for corruption and brutality. Since the beginning of the year, 12 people have died in police custody in the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian country, compared with just nine for the whole of 2012.
(Reporting by Siva Sithraputhran; Editing by Stuart Grudgings)