KUALA LUMPUR - A new anti-terrorism law in Malaysia is set to revive indefinite detention without charges or trial. It has also toughened up the country’s controversial Sedition Act, which the prime minister Najib Razak had earlier promised to end.

The government says the measures are vital to maintaining stability and security. But critics, including Malaysia’s political opposition, civil rights watchdogs and the United Nations, worry the laws will be used to silence dissent.

Malaysia’s new Prevention of Terrorism Act will allow suspects to be detained indefinitely without trial with approval from a government-appointed five-person board, and with no right to judicial review.

Fighting terror groups

Malaysia’s Minister of Home Affairs Zahid Hamidi says the act is needed to combat the threat of militant groups such as Islamic State.

“The threat is real, we have to pass it now, and I don't think we should take the risk and we have to prepare ourselves to prevent not only fighters within the country but also foreign fighters,” he said.

Police have detained dozens of Malaysians with links to Islamic State, including one group earlier this month who were allegedly plotting attacks against local targets.

The government vows the anti-terrorism act will not be used against people “solely” for their political beliefs, unlike the old Internal Security Act or ISA, which the government abandoned only three years ago.

Opposition's fears

Opposition politician Tian Chua was detained for two years without trial under the ISA, and says he worries the authorities will similarly use the new law against political opponents.

“IS enter at a convenient time for the government to justify why they need to reintroduce the law. In fact the real pressure for reintroducing such a measure actually comes from the conservative grass roots of the ruling party not necessary purely out of security concerns,” said Tian Chua.

The re-introduction of detention without trial comes amid a police blitz against government critics.

Dozens of opposition politicians, lawyers, social activists and journalists have been arrested in recent weeks under the Sedition Act. They are accused of acts or statements that could incite hatred against the government, royalty or a race.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had earlier promised to scrap the Sedition Act. Instead, the government has moved to strengthen it further, arguing that it’s needed maintain harmony in this multi-racial country.

Opponents worry that it’s just another sign of the narrowing room for dissent in Malaysia.