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Malaysia passes bill to curb jailing without trial

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April 17, 2012 07:33 AM EST | AP

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian legislators on Tuesday approved a bill designed to prevent authorities from detaining suspects indefinitely without trial.

The Security Offenses Bill is the centerpiece of Prime Minister Najib Razak's pledge to reform decades-old laws that opposition and rights groups consider repressive.

Rights activists nevertheless say the bill remains vulnerable to abuse. Opposition leaders insist it's a government ploy to introduce superficial changes ahead of national elections expected within months.

Parliament's lower house on Tuesday passed the bill, which limits detentions without charge to 28 days and only for the purpose of active police investigations.

"Definitely the government will continue with the noble transformation and renewal efforts," Najib told Parliament before legislators debated the bill.

The legislation needs to be endorsed by the upper house, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling coalition, and the constitutional monarch before it takes effect.

It will replace the 52-year-old Internal Security Act, which gave the government powers to indefinitely detain people considered threats to national security.

In recent years, the Internal Security Act has been used mainly against militant suspects, but on several previous occasions opposition leaders and government critics were held for months without trial.

The new bill states that people cannot be detained for their political beliefs. They will have the right to consult a lawyer while being held. After 28 days, police must either release them or charge them in court.

The Malaysian rights group Suaram has said the bill is flawed and the courts instead of police should determine whether someone should be held without charges for weeks.

Some opposition leaders and lawyers also say the definition of security offenses covered by the bill is too broad and unclear. They say it also blocks charged suspects from being released on bail until their trial and appeals are concluded.

Najib this week assured Parliament that the bill carries sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse, including provisions for judicial oversight and a clause for detention periods to be reviewed by lawmakers every five years.