— The Parliament in Malaysia
was expected to vote Thursday on a national security bill introduced two days earlier that has drawn criticism from opposition politicians and rights groups who say its widespread powers could easily be abused by the government.
The proposed legislation allows for the establishment of security areas, where restraints on police powers would be suspended and the authorities would have the ability to conduct arrests, searches and seizures without warrants.
The bill would also permit the destruction of unoccupied structures if they were deemed to pose a threat and allow investigators to dispense with formal inquests into killings by the police or armed forces in designated security areas.
The legislation is “quite clearly a tool for repression,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement.
“While touted as a law to protect national security, the law provides expansive powers that could fundamentally threaten human rights and democratic rule,” he added.
The proposed legislation comes after growing complaints about assaults on civil liberties in Malaysia, including the use of sedition laws to arrest government critics. In April, the government reintroduced the power to detain terrorism suspects without trial, raising concerns about potential abuse.
Although Prime Minister Najib Razak said in October that his government would introduce a bill outlining the powers of the country’s national security council, critics said the content of the legislation on Tuesday was unexpected.
“It just came out of the blue, and suddenly there is a massive national security bill,” said Eric Paulsen, executive director of the Malaysian rights advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty. “It is shocking and a huge surprise.”
Mr. Najib’s coalition has a majority in Parliament, and Thursday is the last day of the current legislative session.
Mr. Najib has been under pressure at home from both the opposition and some members of his party, the United Malays National Organization, over issues like the crackdown on dissent and a political scandal involving an indebted government fund.
Anticorruption investigators say that he received nearly $700 million in his personal accounts but that the money came from donors and not the troubled fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Mr. Najib has denied any personal gain or wrongdoing in the case.
President Obama raised the importance of transparency, civil society and media freedom when he met with Mr. Najib during a visit to Malaysia in November. Mr. Obama also praised Malaysia as a “majority-Muslim country that represents tolerance and peace” and has developed a strong relationship with the United States
on counterterrorism issues.
Critics of the national security bill said the expanded role of the prime minister was particularly worrisome. The legislation would give Mr. Najib the power to declare a security area for up to six months, though Parliament could vote to block such a move.
The legislation “concentrates even more power in the hands of the prime minister,” said Sivarasa Rasiah, a member of Parliament from the opposition People’s Justice Party. “It effectively gives him powers which would normally be exercised in a general emergency, but gives him the power to use them at any time.”
Mr. Najib said in October that the legislation was necessary to protect Malaysia from terrorist threats. But he described the law as a tool for coordinating national security policy and did not suggest at the time that it would include the power to declare security areas or any changes to police privileges.
As written, the law is “far broader than can be justified by any real threat to Malaysia’s national security and creates a real risk of abuse in the hands of Prime Minister Najib and his embattled government,” Mr. Robertson of Human Rights Watch said.
Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who has led criticism of Mr. Najib, said the new law risked leading Malaysia toward dictatorship, The Malay Mail Online reported.