Furore over Malaysia minister's 'shoot first' remark

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian opposition and rights groups on Thursday demanded the sacking of the home minister as outrage mounts over his remark calling for police to "shoot first" when confronting criminal suspects.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the minister responsible for internal security, made the comment at a gathering last Friday to discuss security in the wake of a recent spike in violent crime.

"What is the situation of robbery victims, murder victims during shootings? I think that the best way is we no longer compromise with them.

"There is no need to give them any warning. If we get the evidence, we shoot first," he was quoted as saying in an audio recording made public by the online news portal Malaysiakini.

In recent weeks, including after his remark, more than a dozen criminal suspects have reportedly been killed in police shoot-outs.

"Zahid is not fit to be a minister. He should be removed. (Prime Minister) Najib Razak has lost his credentials as a reformer for keeping quiet over Zahid's remark," said Tian Chua, lawmaker with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Keadilan party.

Zahid's comments came just days after Malaysia's parliament approved an amendment to a 1959 crime prevention law that allows authorities to hold suspects without trial for an initial two-year period, which can be extended indefinitely without charge.

The amendment, put in place to deal with the gun violence, sparked a backlash by the opposition and activists who denounced it as a step back towards authoritarian rule.

Zahid, who is defending his vice-presidency in the ruling United Malays National Organisation, has been accused of making the statement in a bid to win votes ahead of party polls later this month.

A Malaysian government spokesman on Wednesday sought to play down the growing outrage, saying Zahid's comments "appear to have been misconstrued".

But an aide to Zahid had earlier this week confirmed the minister's remarks.

"Zahid should recognise that equally protecting the rights of all Malaysians is his responsibility, and if he's not prepared to do that, he should either resign or be kicked out," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"The sorry record of the Royal Malaysian Police regularly using excessive use of force in pursuit of suspects speaks for itself, with dozens of persons gunned down by police in suspicious circumstances over the past decade," he said in a statement.

Rights group Voice of the Malaysian People (Suaram) called for a complete overhaul of the standard operating procedure for police before more people are shot dead.

"We call on civil society to join the campaign to call for the immediate sacking of Zahid as home minister," Nalini Elumalai, executive director of Suaram, said.

Malaysia is generally a peaceful Southeast Asian country. However there has been a recent burst in execution-style killings involving firearms, including of a former banker and a top civil servant.

Police blame the dozens of shootings in recent months on a turf war by gang members they say were freed when previous security laws were scrapped in 2011.