In the early hours of the morning on April 7, the Malaysian parliament reintroduced powers of indefinite detention without trial in the form of a new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Such powers, previously under the Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance — which were repealed in 2012 under popular pressure — have a notorious history of being used by British colonial and, after independence, Malaysian authorities to detain political dissidents.
The official justification for POTA was the alleged threat faced from terrorists influenced by the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. And just as the law was being rushed through the parliament, the police announced that it had arrested 17 people accused of planning terrorist acts.
“The new law gives the authorities very wide powers and does not have sufficient checks and balances,” Malaysia's sole socialist MP and long-time campaigner against the ISA Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj (pictured) told Green Left Weekly in an exclusive interview.
“For example, a magistrate has to grant a remand order of three weeks if the police give him/her a written statement that the person being investigated might have links with a terrorist organisation.
“There is no requirement that the person being detained should be given the opportunity to address the Prevention of Terrorism Board which decides whether to detain that person for up to two years at a time.
“The Act specifically states that the decisions of this Board to send people to detention without trial cannot be the subject of any review in the legal system.
“Further, Section 32 allows all government servants to escape any judicial review action by claiming that the information is sensitive.”
Dr Jeyakumar was one of six activists from the PSM were last detained without trial under the Emergency Ordinance simply for campaigning peacefully against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government in 2011. The six later sued authorities in a civil action and won RM201,000 in damages for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment.
“We, in the PSM, have personally witnessed how the police can and do misuse their powers to arrest and remand and try to put us into jail. Our police are far from independent and professional. Giving them additional powers is bad news for all of us.”
Under pressure from a sustained mass movement for democratic change, the BN government repealed the ISA and Emergency Ordinance in 2012. It also promised to repeal the Sedition Act, another repressive law that has its origins under British colonial rule.
However, since then government headed by PM Najib Razak has reversed on this promise.
Najib's government is now also pushing through amendments to strengthen the Sedition Action, depriving persons charged with sedition from the right to bail, making jail terms mandatory in certain instances and extending the maximum jail term for sedition to 20 years.
The police have also detained scores of political activists, opposition politicians, lawyers and journalists under the Sedition Act and other repressive laws. A few have already been charged with sedition while others, including PSM general secretary Arutchelvan S (Arul) are still under police investigation.
“I think Najib himself wanted to liberalise, but there are other Malay nationalists in the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the leading parting in the ruling BN coalition, who believe that the 'Malay rights' might be compromised if they lose these powers," said Jeyakumar.
“As Najib is facing a growing revolt within his party — with former PM Mahathir Mohamed leading the public attacks on his leadership — he decided to jettison the liberalisation project as an unnecessary political burden in his increasingly embattled position.”
Civil liberty advocates, the Malaysian Bar Association and even the official Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) have opposed the return of indefinite detention without trial.
The Malaysian Bar has condemned POTA as a “repressive law that is an affront to the rule of law and repugnant to the principles of natural justice”.