Malaysia faces backlash over push for tough new laws

By Stuart Grudgings

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's bid to bring back detention without trial and toughen a range of other laws has triggered a backlash from civil society groups who call the move politically motivated and a major step back for human rights.

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi was due to debate the proposed changes in parliament on Monday, justifying them as necessary to battle a rise in violent crime, as the government tries to push through the controversial bills this week.

The proposed amendments appear to mark a reversal of Prime Minister Najib Razak's steps in recent years to repeal draconian security laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), that were sometimes used to jail government critics.

They come weeks ahead of a ruling party assembly where Najib faces pressure to make concessions to hard liners, following a weak election result in May that cut the ruling coalition's majority, undermining the prime minister's moderate agenda.

"After the election they are showing their real colours," said Nalini Elumanai, executive director of human rights group Suaram. "It's not because they want to curb crime. They want to stop the civil society movements, that's the real motive."

The tougher laws come as Najib's dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) struggles to retain its traditional grip on the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian nation in the face of growing demand for more freedoms.

Najib attempted to rebrand UMNO after a dismal election showing in 2008, liberalizing security laws and pledging to phase out privileges for majority ethnic Malays.

But he is widely seen as having been pegged back by UMNO traditionalists, particularly after May's election, in which minority ethnic Chinese and most urban voters rejected the ruling coalition.

"WIDE OPEN TO ABUSE"

The changes to the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act provide for a board made up of three members and headed by a judge to issue detention orders for up to two years that can later be renewed.

The suspect has no right to legal representation, according to a copy of the bill seen by Reuters, and lawyers said there would be limited scope to appeal against decisions.

In addition, the government is proposing amendments to the country's penal code, mandating prison terms of 5 to 15 years for promoting a false national flag and up to three years for "vandalism", which includes the display of banners or placards without proper permission.

Judges' powers of discretion in sentencing are curtailed in favour of minimum mandatory sentences.

The new laws could be so broadly interpreted that they were "wide open to abuse," said Andrew Khoo, co-chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council's Human Rights Committee. The Bar has said the changes are "repugnant to the rule of law".

Khoo told Reuters, "I think the average citizen, rather than feeling safer as a result of these amendments, could actually feel much less safe."

Najib has denied the amendments mark a return to the days of the ISA, saying the increased powers were squarely aimed at tackling crime and would not be abused.

"If the police were to arrest anyone, they have to convince the judge that the particular individual should be detained," Najib was quoted as saying by state-run Bernama news agency as he ended a week-long visit to the United States.

"And we will make sure that no one will be victimised."

Ahead of the May election, government officials had denied crime had risen, despite public concern over a perceived increase in robberies and murders. It has since said that violent crime has spiked, although overall crime rates are down.

"It's become a law-and-order regime that I can see very easily sliding over into cases of going after people who are politically active," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok.

"The liberal honeymoon period of Najib is over and now he's basically thrown in with the conservatives."

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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