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By Stuart Grudgings
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's government proposed an amendment to crime laws on Wednesday that would give authorities the power to hold suspects for years without trial, in what critics said was a lurch back to draconian security policies that were only recently eased.
The government is justifying the proposed toughening of security laws as necessary to curb a rise in violent crime in recent months, including the murder of a prominent former banker in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, that has alarmed the public.
But the move to amend the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act has political resonance in a country where tough security laws have been used in the past to detain opposition figures and government critics and following an election in May that deepened ethnic and political divisions.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has moved to appease conservative factions in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in recent weeks, signalling that the weak election victory has blunted his ability to push liberal reforms.
Teo Nie Ching, an opposition member of parliament, said the new proposal appeared to be a "fundamental breach of human rights".
"It seems we are going back to the time of the ISA (Internal Security Act) even though it is called prevention of crime," she told Reuters.
The ISA, which allowed for indefinite detention, was among several tough security laws repealed by Najib in 2011.
BACKSLIDING ON LIBERTIES?
Under the amendment, a Prevention of Crime Board made up of three members and headed by a judge will be able to issue a detention order for two years, which could be renewed for two years indefinitely, according to a copy of the bill seen by Reuters.
The detention could be ordered if the board is satisfied that it is "in the interest of public order, public security or prevention of crime", the draft bill says.
Najib repealed a series of colonial-era security laws in 2011, including the ISA and Emergency Ordinance, that allowed indefinite detention without trial, saying he was seeking a new balance between national security and ensuring civil liberties.
The moves were seen as an attempt to make the ruling coalition more appealing to Malaysia's growing middle class and burgeoning youth population. But many of those voters rejected the Barisan Nasional coalition in May, weakening its majority in parliament and leaving Najib vulnerable to UMNO traditionalists who oppose more liberal security policies.
Police chiefs have appealed for a replacement for the Emergency Ordinance, blaming its repeal for releasing hundreds of hard-core criminals on to the streets.
Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but Home Minister Zahid Hamidi was quoted by online media portals as telling reporters the new proposal was not "draconian" and that the government would listen to criticism.
Najib is assured of re-election as party leader at an UMNO general assembly next month, but only after he announced a slew of measures this month to help majority ethnic Malays in a move seen as appeasing party conservatives.
(Aditional reporting by Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah; Editing by Robert Birsel)