KUALA LUMPUR (Sept 15): The Malaysian government has been urged by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to cease using the country’s sedition law to arbitrarily arrest opposition lawmakers, activists, and critical academics.
In a statement Monday, HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said that since 2013, at least 14 people had been charged under the Sedition Act 1948 for criticizing the government or government officials.
Those found guilty face up to five years in prison and a fine of RM 5,000.
Robertson said the government of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak should repeal the Sedition Act, which had repeatedly been used to prosecute people for political purposes in violation of the right to freedom of expression.
“The Malaysian government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instill fear and silence in political opponents and critics.
“Prime Minister Najib’s crackdown on free expression has shown his true rights-abusing colors,” said Robertson.
HRW said the Sedition Act prohibits vague offenses such as uttering “any seditious words” without defining what constitutes “sedition” or “seditious words.”
“It broadly outlaws any “seditious tendency” that would “bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any government,” it said.
HRW stressed that in the period before the general election on May 5, 2013, Najib repeatedly said that he would lead an effort to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a so-called Harmony Act.
“However, following the election, in which the ruling coalition the Barisan Nasional retained power despite major losses in the national parliament, he retreated from his pledge,” it said.
The human rights body also pointed out that Malaysian authorities had used the Act to to charge four opposition members of parliament with sedition, including Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Vice President Tian Chua and Democratic Action Party (DAP) Vice President Teresa Kok.
HRW said the government was also prosecuting academics and journalists under the Sedition Act.
On September 1, Dr. Azmi Sharom, a University of Malaya professor, was charged with sedition for comments related to a political event five years ago.
Menwhile, on September 4, the authorities arrested Susan Loone, assistant editor at Malaysiakini, an online newspaper critical of the government and ruling coalition, on suspicion of sedition for her article that included statements by Phee Boone Poh, a Penang State executive councilor.
HRW said the government has also investigated several senior opposition politicians but ultimately charged them with sections of the penal code that severely restrict expression.
The politicians included senior member of the PKR and member of parliament Rafizi Ramli and former Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin.
Ropbertson said the Malaysian government had apparently decided that its vaguely worded Sedition Act is its new catch-all charge against its most vocal critics.
“Prime Minister Najib should realise that throwing activists and opposition leaders in jail for what they say is a slippery slope to authoritarian rule,” he said.