Human Rights Watch yesterday urged Malaysia to scrap a law that it said was used to hold about 700 criminal suspects indefinitely without charging them or bringing them to trial.
"The Malaysian parliament should repeal this law and instead rely on the country's criminal law to prosecute ordinary criminal offences," the US-based group said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch was taking aim at legislation known as the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance, originally adopted as a temporary measure to rein in ethnic riots in 1969 but which the government has used for nearly four decades to hold suspects it finds difficult to prosecute.
"Malaysia continues to rely on `emergency' laws created in the 1960s to deal with racial riots and to counter communist insurgency," the group said. "They are detained by executive fiat in violation of international and Malaysian law."
"Emergency Ordinance detainees live in a world of uncertainty, never knowing when they will be released," said Sahr MuhammedAlly, the researcher who wrote a 35-page report on the issue, which Human Rights Watch published yesterday.
"Once released, there is no guarantee that they will not be re-arrested and detained for the same alleged offence. This practice must end," he said.
The Emergency Ordinance is similar to the better-known Internal Security Act (ISA), an anti-communist relic of British rule now deployed mainly against suspected Islamist militants, under which preventive detention can be renewed every two years.
Malaysia has used the ordinance to detain criminal suspects indefinitely without charge or trial and re-arresting them when courts order their release, Human Rights Watch said.
Former detainees have complained of beatings, food contaminated with worms, unhygienic conditions and rare periods for exercise, the group said in the report.
Officials at the Internal Security Ministry were not immediately available for comment, but the government has said in the past that such laws are necessary to maintain the country's stability and ensure national security.
Other bodies to condemn the practice include a panel appointed by the government itself.
Last year, a commission reviewing the operations of the Royal Malaysian Police called for the repeal of the ordinance, saying it had outlived its purpose.
"It is a fundamental principle that guilt or innocence must be decided by an independent court, not by executive fiat," MuhammedAlly said.