Security Bill threatens basic liberties

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The government of Malaysia’s proposed law to replace the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960 opens the door to a range of future abuses, Human Rights Watch has said.

No to detention without trial - Photo courtesy of reformisjalanan.blogspot.com

On 10 April 2012, the government submitted the Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill 2012 to parliament, where quick ratification is expected.

The administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak touted the bill as a significant improvement over the ISA because it reduces the period of detention without judicial review from 60 to 28 days and only for an “active investigation”. 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,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Provisions of the Security Offences Bill will facilitate violations of fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Permitting detention for 28 days without being brought before a judge violates international standards for prompt judicial review. The bill also allows delays of 48 hours before the suspect has access to a lawyer, which encourages abusive interrogations. And the bill defines “political activity” too narrowly, leaving room for arrests for other forms of peaceful political activity.

Other provisions of the Security Offences Bill raise due process concerns for those suspected of committing security offences, Human Rights Watch said. The proposed law would allow police to make an arrest without a warrant if the officer merely “has reason to believe” that the person may be involved in security offences, many of which are vaguely defined. It would give the police broad powers to conduct searches and intercept communications without judicial warrant. And it would permit the police unilaterally to impose electronic monitoring devices on individuals released from detention, a serious infringement of personal liberty.

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“There are not nearly enough civil liberties protections written into this law,” Robertson said.

Those charged with security offences would face serious infringements of their basic rights under the proposed law, Human Rights Watch said. The bill contains a blanket provision denying bail to people charged with security offences. The identity of certain prosecution witnesses could be kept from defendants and their attorneys, depriving them their right to cross-examine the witnesses against them.

The law would also permit the use in court of any information obtained in raids and investigations, as well as all intercepted communications ­­– which presumably would allow the admission of evidence obtained unlawfully. Finally, the law would permit a court to order the continued detention of an acquitted defendant pending the exhaustion of all prosecution appeals, thus allowing the authorities to keep a person who has been found not guilty behind bars for years.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the proposed law was drafted by the government without meaningful consultation with Malaysian civil society, including the Bar Council and other groups that seek to promote respect for human rights.

“The Security Offences Bill sets the stage for trials with secret witnesses, unlawfully obtained evidence, and continued detention of those found not guilty,” Robertson said. “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.”

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