Malaysia to boost size of security corps despite allegations that volunteers abuse immigrants

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia is expanding a volunteer security corps accused of human rights abuses and adding to its responsibities even though the new recruits won't be trained for now, the corps leader said Thursday.

The government-backed corps, known by its acronym RELA, is meant to help police and other authorities conduct neighborhood patrols and track down foreigners living in Malaysia without valid documents.

But activists have insisted in recent years that the Home Ministry should disband the force of 1.6 million volunteers because many have been accused of extorting money from illegal immigrants and physically abusing them.

Zaidon Asmuni, RELA's director general, said the corps is now trying to boost its membership to 2.6 million volunteers by the end of this year to better combat crime and take up new tasks such as guarding immigration detention centers in this nation of some 28 million people.

"In the whole country, I have instructed my men to go all out" to hold recruitment drives for new members who are at least 16 years old, Zaidon told The Associated Press.

The corps will not be able to train for all of them but believes the risk is low, he said.

"As in any department, most of them are very good. But maybe one or two are black sheep. It happens anywhere," he said.

Anyone who commits an offense would face suspension and possibly a police investigation. Though most members undergo a one-day orientation course, only some 8,000 members can be trained thoroughly each year, Zaidon said.

Hundreds of volunteers have recently been deployed to guard detention centers for illegal immigrants following the escape of 20 Afghans from one such location earlier this month, Zaidon said.

Temme Lee, an official with Malaysian human rights group Suaram, said foreigners complained of extortion by RELA members almost every day.

"The increase of RELA's role is very worrying," Lee said. "It's not right that a volunteer force should be used for enforcement."

In a report last June about refugees in Malaysia, rights group Amnesty International said "largely untrained RELA agents frequently subject the people they arrest to humiliation, physical abuse, theft and extortion."