KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia was accused Tuesday of waging an assault on civil rights as parliament passed a tough anti-terrorism law aimed at countering Islamic militancy.
The passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act came as the government announced that 17 militants - whom police say were arrested for plotting terror attacks in the country - had drawn their inspiration from the extremist Islamic State group.
The new law allows authorities to detain terrorism suspects without charge for extended periods. The political opposition and legal and rights groups had urged its withdrawal, saying it could be used by the long-ruling government to stifle political dissent.
"My biggest fear is that the law may be abused," said opposition lawmaker N. Surendran.
"I don't think there is any basis for the government's claim that this law is needed to contain (the Islamic State)," he added, calling it "a grievous blow to democracy".
The government has promised the law would not be abused for political ends.
Authorities have repeatedly warned of an imminent threat of terror attacks in the wake of the Islamic State's (IS) rise in Syria, saying dozens of people from traditionally moderate Muslim-majority Malaysia had volunteered for the IS jihad.
Amid a heated debate over the legislation, police said that on Sunday they arrested 17 IS-inspired militants who were plotting to kidnap unspecified high-profile figures, rob banks and launch terror attacks.
Releasing some details Tuesday, national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar also said the conspirators planned to rob banks to raise money and to raid armed forces and police facilities for weapons.
"Seventeen people between the ages of 14 to 49 were arrested while they were holding a secret meeting to plan terror attacks in the (Kuala Lumpur area)," Khalid said in a statement.
"The aim of this new terror group was to form an IS-like Islamic state in Malaysia." Khalid said the arrests brought to 92 the number of people detained over the past year in Malaysia for suspected involvement in the IS jihad in Syria.
The parliamentary opposition has complained that the government has shared no details on its dozens of claimed arrests or the extent of the purported terror threat, and some question the timing of the arrests.
"It certainly is very coincidental that the arrests happened just as the bill was being debated," Surendran said.
'Giant step backwards'
Opponents of the coalition that has ruled since independence in 1957 - but which is reeling from setbacks in recent elections - fear the terror fears are being played up to restore repressive powers that were removed with the abolition of a previous tough security law.
That law was repeatedly used to lock up opposition politicians and other critics for long periods, but was scrapped in 2012 amid public pressure for reform.
Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called the new legislation "a giant step backwards for human rights".
"Passage of this legislation raises serious concerns that Malaysia will return to practices of the past when government agents frequently used fear of indefinite detention to intimidate and silence outspoken critics," he said.
The government has faced a stern test in recent elections from an opposition that accuses it of corruption and abuse of power.
Prime Minister Najib Razak promised in 2011 to create "the greatest democracy" and launched tentative political liberalisation moves, but has done an about-face since a poor showing in 2013 elections.
Dozens of its critics including opposition politicians, academics, activists and journalists, have been hit with sedition or other charges in what political analysts view as a campaign to pressure and harass opponents.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sent to prison in February on a sodomy conviction he says was fabricated by the government.
Najib's administration denies the accusation.
The anti-terrorism legislation was passed in the early hours of Tuesday after a marathon overnight debate.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last August police said they foiled an IS-inspired plot to bomb pubs, nightclubs and a Malaysian brewery of Danish beer producer Carlsberg, arresting more than a dozen people.
A string of other suspected IS-related arrests have been announced since, but few details given.