KUALA LUMPUR - A controversial Malaysian government move to give authorities power to hold people for years without charge was headed for parliamentary approval after the lower house passed it early Thursday.
The move by Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition has sparked an uproar by the opposition and activists who denounce it as a step back toward the tough authoritarian rule that Najib had pledged to end.
The amendment to a 1959 crime prevention law allows authorities to hold crime suspects for an initial two years which can be extended indefinitely without charge. The government says police need that to deal with a recent burst of gun violence.
But preventive detention is a highly charged issue in Malaysia, whose 56-year-old ruling coalition has been accused of regularly using previous tough laws to silence dissent.
Lawmakers and media reports said parliament's lower house passed the amendments early Thursday, shortly after midnight.
"It's unconstitutional to us. It takes away the right to liberty. And the law is drafted in such a way that the net can cover everyone," Tian Chua, a senior opposition politician, told AFP.
The passage comes despite a pledge last week by the government to take into account concerns that have been raised.
Senate approval is still required, but that is virtually assured as the Barisan Nasional (National Front) ruling coalition controls the body.
Under public pressure for reform, Najib in 2011 abolished two tough, decades-old laws that allowed indefinite detention without trial, touting the move as a shift toward a more democratic society.
Najib said this week the crime amendments would not be abused, and his home minister insists they are far weaker than the earlier security laws.
"I assure you again, this would not be used against someone just because we have political differences," Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told parliament just before it voted, Malaysian media reported.
But Najib's opponents have accused him of swerving to the right after winning May general elections on promises of reform.
Police blame dozens of shootings in recent months on a turf war by gang members they say were freed when the previous security laws were scrapped.
They have pushed for stronger powers, but the opposition says police already have enough.
Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement that "Malaysia is taking a huge step backwards on rights."
He called the amendments "methods that do little to curtail crime, but threaten everyone's liberty".
Some 30 activists, rights lawyers and members of the public staged a protest march to parliament on Monday, accusing Najib of betraying his earlier reform pledge.