Malaysia’s proposed bill to replace a hated security law that allows indefinite detention without trial opens the door to a range of future abuses, Human Rights Watch warned Wednesday.
In September prime minister Najib Razak promised to repeal the colonial-era Internal Security Act (ISA) which in the past had been used against political opponents and suspected terrorists.
Najib, who took power three years ago, has been courting voters with polls expected to be called soon in what will likely be a tight battle against a resurgent opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
The new Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill was presented in parliament on Tuesday and if passed next week guarantees detainees access to a legal counsel after 48 hours.
It also prohibits arrest solely on the basis of “political belief or political activity”.
“The Malaysian government is putting to rest the long-derided ISA, but it is also setting the stage for future abuses,” HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“While the new law has improvements, the authorities still hold too much power to detain people on broad grounds, for too long, and without judicial oversight,” he said.
Robertson also said the new law would give the police broad powers to conduct searches without judicial warrants and permit police unilaterally to impose electronic monitoring devices on individuals released from detention.
“There are not nearly enough civil liberties protections written into this law,” he said.
Robertson said the Security Offences Bill sets the stage for trials with secret witnesses, unlawfully obtained evidence, and continued detention of those found not guilty.
“The government should go back to the drawing board and draft a law with input from civil society that will ensure the protection of basic rights,” he said.
Critics have said Najib’s reform pledges are ploys to garner voter support after the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition suffered its worst performance ever during the 2008 polls.