KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's government introduced legislation Tuesday to stop arrests based on their political beliefs and indefinite detainments without trial.
The Security Offenses Bill presented to Parliament's lower house would replace the 52-year-old Internal Security Act, which was enacted to give the government preventive powers against national security threats following a communist insurgency.
Over the decades, political opponents and government critics occasionally have been held for months without trial. In recent years, the ISA has been invoked mainly against militant suspects.
The new bill would limit security detentions without charge to 28 days and only for the purpose of active police investigations. It marks a big step in placating rights groups that have long accused authorities of using detention without trial to stifle dissent.
Those detained would be people suspected of terrorism or security crimes, with the bill providing "an explicit commitment that no one can be arrested or detained on the basis of their political affiliation, activity or belief," according to a statement by Prime Minister Najib Razak's office.
Detainees would have the right to consult a lawyer while being held, and the law would provide for judicial oversight to ensure police accountability.
"This is a historic day for Malaysia and another major step forward on the road to reform," Najib said.
"I am confident (the new law) will give police the powers they need to protect national security and combat terrorism at the same time as introducing new safeguards for civil liberties to ensure the highest standards are upheld," he added.
Lawmakers in Parliament's lower house are expected to debate and approve the bill next week. It must then be endorsed by the legislature's upper house and the country's constitutional monarch before it comes into force.
The bill could help bolster Najib's insistence that he is serious about political reforms to improve human rights ahead of national elections expected within a few months.
Najib has pledged changes to other laws that opposition and rights activists have called repressive. Earlier this week, the government moved to lift a decades-old ban on the involvement of university students in politics.
Officials hope the measures will help them win back voters who deserted the National Front ruling coalition in 2008 elections amid complaints about a wide range of the government's political and economic policies. Najib's National Front now has slightly less than a two-thirds majority in Parliament.