Malaysian lawmakers have approved controversial changes to a security law that would allow authorities to detain people without charge for years.
Under the amendments approved Thursday by the lower house of parliament, suspects could be held without trial for two years if they are deemed a public security threat. Suspects could be held indefinitely if a panel finds they committed serious offenses.
Prime Minister Najib Razak and his long-ruling coalition vow not to abuse the new powers granted by the changes to the Prevention of Crime Act. They say the amendments are necessary in order to deal with a wave of organized crime.
Those promises have done little to satisfy rights groups and opposition leaders, who say it is a return to a law, repealed just two years ago, that was sometimes used to jail dissidents.
James Chin, a Malaysia analyst with Australia's Monash University, said he thinks such fears are justified, given the Malaysian government's past behavior.
"Under the previous act, called the Internal Security Act, the government initially promised not to use it for political reasons," noted Chin. " But throughout the history of the ISA, the government used that instrument to arrest all the opposition leaders."
Chin predicts that authorities will likely be cautious in using the law against the opposition, at first.
"But during certain times, for example, as we head toward the elections, at times of high political tension, you might see the laws being abused and used against opposition members," he said.
The international rights organization Human Rights Watch said Wednesday the proposed changes would be a "huge step backwards on rights." Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, said the proposal would "do little to curtail crime, but threaten everyone's liberty."
The changes to the law are expected to be endorsed soon by the upper house and signed by the country's constitutional monarch.