By: Our Correspondent

The Malaysian government has passed an anti-terrorism bill reminiscent of the notorious Internal Security Act that the country discarded in 2012, earning the government renewed condemnation from international civil rights groups and journalism associations.  The passage comes at a time when the country is also increasingly using its 1948 Sedition Act – which Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak also promised to do away with – against its political critics.

The new Prevention of Terrorism Act, pushed through in the early hours of April 7, allows suspected terrorists to be detained for a maximum of 38 days without trial; a Prevention of Terrorism Board would then be empowered to extend detention to two years, renewable every two years after that, with no maximum period of detention. The measure allows for detention solely on the word of a police inspector, extendable without access to counsel. Critics of the government fear the act could be used against them.

Najib, when he was in a considerably stronger position than he is now, ordered the cessation of detention without trial in 2011, earning praise as a moderate leader from the United States and other governments.

However, the country is plainly worried about suspected fundamentalist returnees from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq with estimates of those who have slipped out of Malaysia for the Middle East running into the hundreds. Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar in a Twitter message told Agence France Presse on Monday that 17 people had been arrested on April 5 on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in Kuala Lumpur, including two recently returned from Syria.

Malaysian voters are plainly jittery. As Asia Sentinel reported on March 20, unofficial guesses are that as many as 400 young Malaysians have left for the Middle East although some alarmists put the figure as high as 1,000. Authorities say the numbers are far lower, at “scores.” Zahid Hamidi, the home minister, told reporters in January that 67 were known to have gone to join the fighting and that at least five had been killed.

Civil rights and journalist groups, however, questioned the need for the return of a draconian security act that was abhorred by much of the country.  Amnesty International, in a prepared release, said: “Such laws do not comply with international human rights law and contradict commitments made by the Malaysian authorities to the international community.”

The Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said it was “appalled at the government’s proposal to reintroduce indefinite detention without trial.” The organization said it is “farcical that Prime Minister Najib Razak made a big show of announcing the repeal of the ISA in 2011 and for Parliament to have passed a law repealing it in 2012, only to have a very similar act reintroduced in 2015 under the exact same leadership.”

“Permitting a government-appointed body to order indefinite detention without judicial review or trial is an open invitation to serious abuse,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The draft law creates conditions conducive to torture, and denies suspects the right to challenge their detention or treatment.”

The measure appears at a time when the government has dramatically stepped up the use of the sedition act.  However, under pressure from United Malays National Organization party chieftains Najib has been forced to return to the law with a vengeance.  UMNO is alarmed by growing public frustration and annoyance over a continuing string of scandals including that of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB, a shaky state investment fund. The debt problems of 1MDB have impelled the Fitch rating service to downgrade the country’s entire financial system over fear of a default. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who engineered Najib’s replacement of former Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has been savaging Najib at every turn.

So far, nearly 160 arrests have been made under the sedition act, almost all of them members of the opposition, journalists, human rights activists  and others including Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, or Zunar, perhaps the country’s most popular cartoonist, who makes a specialty of mocking the spending habits of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

That has led Amnesty International to describe the country as an expanding black hole for human rights, calling on authorities to end the use of the act “to criminalize criticism of the government.”

Amnesty International, according to the statement, “has long expressed concerns about Malaysia’s oppressive laws which allow for arbitrary and/or preventive detention, in the same way that it has expressed its increasing concern over the use of existing laws to repress peaceful dissent.”