Malaysia’s plan to deploy personnel from a notorious volunteer task force to help enforce a crackdown on crime triggered criticism Thursday from human rights campaigners.

The New Straits Times said the home ministry had enlisted 254 members from the Civil Defence Department and RELA, a 553,000-strong citizen corps that has been accused of serious rights abuses.

The report described the personnel as the “cream of the crop” and said they were undergoing a two-week training programme before being assigned to crime hot spots next month.

However, rights groups said that RELA officers were unsuited to the task, and called for the closure of the unit which has been accused of violence and extortion, particularly against suspected illegal migrants.

“They shouldn’t be given enforcement power because they are volunteers — they are not trained, and have no background in law or how to handle criminals,” said Temme Lee from leading rights watchdog Suaram.

“We have made it clear from the beginning that RELA should be disbanded and the use of RELA corps with barely any training in law and enforcement will lead to more rights abuses,” she told AFP.

Amnesty International Malaysia also spoke out against the plan.

“Why don’t we hire more police instead? We should stop this temporary measure,” said its Malaysia executive director Nora Murat.

The US-based Human Rights Watch has accused RELA of harassing and abusing foreigners and said it was responsible for numerous cases of illegal detention.

Prime Minister Najib Razak this week announced a plan to cut crime by 20 percent, as part of a raft of populist measures.

Spiralling street crime, including violent muggings, is a major concern for Malaysians, according to opinion polls.

RELA’s uniformed volunteers have legal immunity and are allowed to arrest individuals as well as enter and search any premises without a warrant.

The force was established in 1972 under the home affairs ministry to help maintain public order. Its name is an acronym for People’s Volunteer Corps in the Malay language. –AFP