Asia-Pacific

Malaysia repeals laws that imprison without trial

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (c) during a televised statement on security laws
Image caption Prime Minister Najib Razak's move comes ahead of a general election expected early next year

The Malaysian government is repealing emergency decrees that have been used to imprison thousands of people without trial.

Prime Minister Najib Razak also promised to remove a ban on students engaging in politics.

He rejected accusations by opposition politicians that his reforms amounted to false promises.

He said his government was taking a brave moral standard as part of a campaign to expand civil liberties.

"It is done because we believe in the maturity of Malaysians," he said.

Many opposition politicians are unconvinced. They say the reforms are an election manoeuvre aimed at winning back support for the governing coalition.

Some suspect the government of preparing to enact equally repressive new legislation to replace the old laws.

Analysts believe that Mr Najib is preparing to call an early general election next year and is anxious to present himself as a reformer following a backlash against the coalition at the last election.

Protest law

In the latest move, he announced the repeal of three emergency proclamations providing for detention without trial.

They date from the 1960s and 70s when Malaysia was racked by acute racial tensions between Muslim Malays and the ethnic Chinese population which at one point exploded into bloody riots.

Thousands of people are being held under the proclamations, according to a report on arbitrary detention by the UN Human Rights Council last year.

Campaigners say that many of those being held are petty criminals who have been denied due process.

The repeal of the decrees means that many can now expect to be released or sent for trial.

Mr Najib promised in September to repeal another law, the Internal Security Act, which has its origins in the anti-Communist legislation of the British colonial period and has been used for decades to detain and intimidate government critics.

The government also proposed a new law this week on the right to peaceful protest, but government critics reacted with outrage.

They said it was as repressive as the law it replaces as it bans all street demonstrations and gives police widespread powers to impose other restrictions.

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