Malaysia's government on Wednesday released 125 prisoners who were being held under a decades-old security law that has been widely criticized by human rights and opposition groups. In an address to Parliament [official website] earlier this week, Prime Minister Najib Razak [official profile] announced the release [AP report] of all individuals being held under the Restricted Residence Act of 1933 [text, PDF], the British colonial-era act that enables authorities to banish suspects to remote districts and force them to report regularly to police. The law has been used to detain criminal suspects who, like many of the individuals just released, have never been charged in court. The identities of the freed prisoners have been withheld, but those held under the act in the past two years include suspected robbery gang members and a religious teacher accused of spreading militant ideologies. As the prisoners were released, Najib stated the government would also revoke more than 200 unserved warrants [AFP report] issued under the law. In his address to Parliament, Najib called the Restricted Residence Act outdated, partly due to technological advances that allow exiled criminals to communicate with confederates still in the country. Parliament is expected to approve a bill this month to revoke the act as a larger effort to repeal several tough security laws viewed by many as outdated and oppressive.
Malaysia's strict security laws have been widely criticized for years. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention [official website] recommended [JURIST report] last year that Malaysia repeal or amend its internal security laws, reflecting allegations that the laws violate human rights. Najib's address to Parliament on Monday officially initiated the repeal [JURIST report] of several of these laws, expected to culminate in March with the revocation of the Internal Security Act of 1960 (ISA) [text, PDF], which has allowed the government to detain opposition critics, alleged militants and labor activists for a period of up to two years without a trial. Najib had originally announced the repeals [JURIST report], as well as the review of other laws dealing with freedom of the press, in September, but they were tabled over the past month. The repeal of the ISA and similar laws are generally considered a political move by the prime minister, designed to boost his uncertain re-election hopes three months after police used tear gas and water cannon to crush a street rally calling for electoral reforms.