PM moves to revoke strict Malaysian security law

Repeal of law that has enabled government to detain thousands of suspects without trial, including opposition critics, labour activists and alleged militants, likely before next year's general election.

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KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysia's prime minister launched moves in parliament yesterday to revoke strict security laws as part of his new pledge to protect civil liberties.

The biggest overhaul of Malaysia's security policies in decades is expected to culminate in March with the repeal of a law that has enabled the government to detain thousands of suspects without trial, including opposition critics, labour activists and alleged militants.

The prime minister, Najib Razak, promised last month that several laws long criticised by rights groups would be annulled. Opposition leaders consider it an effort to shore up the ruling coalition's support before national elections expected by mid-2012.

Mr Najib tabled bills in parliament's lower house yesterday to abolish two laws that allow authorities to banish suspects to remote districts and restrict their movements without trial.

The two laws have been used for more than five decades against people including teenagers accused of being motorcycle thieves, illegal football betting operators and alleged criminal gang members.

Officials defended the laws previously, saying they were needed to curb threats to public stability in cases where evidence against suspects was insufficient.

Malaysian rights activists have cautiously welcomed Mr Najib's efforts, noting that the government still plans to introduce laws to replace those abolished. Mr Najib has promised the laws would provide for more judicial oversight and only permit the detention of terrorists.

"The two new acts will try to find a balance between human rights, individual rights, civil liberties while guarding the nation's security and harmony," he told parliament yesterday.

The government legislator, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, voiced hopes that Mr Najib's move to repeal the current laws would reassure people "who still doubt [the prime minister's] commitment" to implement his reform pledges.

Parliament's lower house is likely to debate and pass the first two bills this month before submitting them to the senate and the country's constitutional monarch for their final approval.

The government also tabled a bill to create a bipartisan parliamentary panel to study possible reforms in electoral laws over the next six months. The initiative comes after tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Kuala Lumpur in July to demand a clean-up of voter registration lists and tighter measures to prevent electoral fraud.

Mr Najib's National Front coalition has governed since 1957, but it has struggled in recent years to tackle accusations of rampant corruption and racial discrimination. The coalition is eager to secure a stronger mandate in the next election after the opposition won one-third of parliament's seats and wrested several states in 2008 polls.