KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia will immediately release 125 people held under a tough security law, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Wednesday as he pressed a pre-election drive to improve civil liberties.
Najib, who is widely tipped to call snap polls soon, last month unexpectedly announced plans to scrap a range of decades-old draconian laws long criticised as oppressive and outdated.
The moves come as Najib tries to boost his United Malays National Organisation's uncertain re-election hopes three months after police used tear gas and water cannon to crush a street rally calling for electoral reform.
He told parliament's lower house that curbs imposed by the Restricted Residence Act -- which allows police to banish criminal suspects to remote areas and restrict their movements -- would be lifted at once.
"I hereby announce that the Home Ministry will free all 125 individuals being held under the Restricted Residence Act with immediate effect," he said.
More than 200 unserved warrants issued under the act also would be quashed.
Najib introduced a motion on Monday to repeal the law along with another that allows banishment of non-Malaysians from the country.
They marked the first steps in Najib's vow to repeal or soften authoritarian laws headed by the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial and has been used against government opponents.
Government officials have said the ISA repeal would get under way next year.
Najib said his government was committed to a system in which punishment "must be based on the directive of a court". Neither the ISA, residence or banishment acts are subject to court oversight.
The ethnic Malay-dominated governing coalition now headed by Najib that has ruled Malaysia since its 1957 independence has employed a range of tough laws to maintain order in the Muslim-majority but multi-racial country.
But the laws have sparked growing condemnation by critics who call them inhumane and prone to government abuse to stifle legitimate dissent.
While welcoming the release of the 125 suspects, veteran opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang said proof of the government's commitment to change will be seen in how the repeal of tougher laws like the ISA is handled.
"The question remains as to whether they will really abolish the ISA and other laws that impinge on civil liberties and the freedoms of speech and assembly, and whether the replacement laws will be any better," he told AFP.
Najib has said the ISA would be replaced by new, albeit less restrictive, laws.
Government officials say most of those targeted by the residence act were suspected of vice offences and lesser crimes and were not serious security threats.
Parliament was expected to easily pass the repeals of both the residence and banishment acts.
Najib is required to call new polls by early 2013 but is widely expected to call them sooner. The opposition alliance is fractured yet potent and achieved historic gains in 2008 parliamentary polls.
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