Malaysia passes anti-terrorism Bill after new arrests of 17 terror suspects

Malaysia passed a Prevention of Terrorism (Pota) Bill early Tuesday morning, hours after it was reported that 17 people were arrested for planning attacks on landmarks in the country.

Opposition members of parliament proposed several amendments to the legislation, but it was voted through unchanged at 2.25am, with 79 in favour and 60 against. 

Under Pota, a Prevention of Terrorism Board consisting of five to seven members will have the power to order two-year detention or five-year restriction order for suspects that can be renewed indefinitely. There will be no judicial review in any court of the board's decision, except on issues of compliance with the provisions under Pota, the bill reads.

The new legislation also empowers the authorities to seize travel documents of both citizens and foreigners, impose harsher penalties on those who are convicted while under restriction, and punish by up to 30 years in jail the act of training, travelling or building transportation devices for terrorism.

During the parliamentary debate, Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar called for bipartisan support and denied that the Bill was a reincarnation of the scrapped Internal Security Act. He stressed that the executive power would not be with the minister, but the board which would  make decisions on detention to ensure they are reached independently.

He said it was important to  pass  the Bill to prevent any terrorist attacks against the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  

"In the ISA previously, the police will decide who to detain but under Pota, only the board is allowed to make such a decision. As such, criticisms that Pota is the twin of the ISA are baseless, inaccurate and untrue."

When wrapping up the debate at parliament, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi  reassured the House that human rights and civil liberties would be safeguarded. He said views expressed during the debate would be taken into consideration by the Attorney-General for future amendments if needed.

The government first proposed a new anti-terror law after tabling a White Paper in parliament last November, outlining  its position on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat.

A total of 92 militants have been arrested in Malaysia since February 2013. In the latest arrests, 17 militants, who were planning attacks on landmarks in Malaysia, were rounded up in raids in Kedah and the Klang Valley on Sunday. The home minister told Parliament on Monday that  most of the 17 people - the youngest who is only 14 years old -  are  hardcore believers of ISIS ideology.

The leader is a 45-year-old former member of the terror group Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) who went to Syria in August 2014 and returned to Malaysia in December. The others include  a religious teacher, two civil servants, and a security officer.

During the parliamentary debate, Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs often used fear in their arguments to support the Bill, citing imminent attack against the Petronas Twin Towers if the proposed law is not passed. On September 2011, terrorist group Al Qaeda flew two commercial planes into the World Trade Centre in New York that killed 2,996 people.

BN Ketereh MP Annuar Musa asked if the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) was willing to compromise human rights for national security. “Are you willing to allow thousands to die when there is terror attack against the Petronas Twin Tower because authorities do not have the mechanisms or space to arrest and stop those suspected of terrorism?” he said.

Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin said the authorities should also investigate political parties for terrorism, in reference to opposition Party Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). In September last year, former PAS Kedah Youth information chief Mohd Lotfi Ariffin died in Syria after fighting alongside ISIS.

PR MPs opposed the Bill on the ground that it ignores human rights and tried to push their amendments during the committee stage of the debate. The amendments proposed included a remand period of not more than 14 days and the requirement that a police officer arresting a suspect should have a rank no lower than Superintendent.

Their bid, however, was unsuccessful as it was defeated 64 to 80 in favour of the motion. 

asruls@sph.com.sg