(New York) – Malaysian authorities should drop sedition charges against a political opposition leader that violate rights to free expression, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 12, 2013, a court in Kuala Lumpur will bring proceedings against Tian Chua, vice-president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party, PKR) and a member of parliament.
The charges against Tian relate to a statement he made in the media concerning recent violence in Sabah and the alleged role of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the largest party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Malaysia’s sedition law has long been used by the authorities to silence peaceful critics and opposition party leaders.
“Charging an opposition leader with sedition for expressing his views in the media ahead of a general election is a direct assault on the democratic process,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prosecutors should end this charade and immediately drop their politically motivated charges against Tian Chua.”
If convicted, Tian faces a sentence of up to three years in prison and a fine of RM 5000 (US$1,600). A conviction resulting in a sentence of at least one year or a fine of RM 2000 would disqualify him from standing for elections or holding office as a member of parliament. Any such disqualification would only cease five years after he is released from custody or when he pays the fine. He is currently free on bail.
The authorities charged Tian under section 4(1)(b) of the Sedition Act 1948 for making seditious remarks over the phone on March 1 to a reporter at the Suara Keadilan (Keadilan Daily). He is accused of saying the February fighting at Lahad Datu, in Sabah, between Malaysian security forces and armed men from the Philippines was part of a “planned conspiracy” by the “UMNO government” in order “to divert attention and frighten citizens.” He is also alleged to have raised concerns about the “UMNO government” engaging in a “shadow play” connected to an election registration conspiracy in Sabah.
The Sedition Act includes vague offenses such as uttering “any seditious words” without defining what constitutes “sedition” or “seditious words,” Human Rights Watch said. Instead the act broadly outlaws any “seditious tendency” that would “bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak has repeatedly called for repeal of the Sedition Act. In his April 3 announcement that he would seek re-election, Najib stated that he “look[ed] forward to repealing the Sedition Act and replacing it with legislation more suited to our times.”
Human Rights Watch has sought repeal of the Sedition Act on grounds that it permits restrictions on freedom of expression beyond those allowed by international human rights standards.
“A top priority for the next government of Malaysia should be the immediate repeal of the Sedition Act, an anachronistic, rights repressive law that should have been scrapped long ago,” Robertson said. “Malaysia should resist calls to replace it with a more cheerfully named yet equally oppressive piece of legislation, and trust in the existing penal code to preserve peace and order.”
On March 6, a six-member police investigation team arrived with a warrant to search the offices of Suara Keadilan and, according to the paper’s web portal, notified staff members that they were there to “confiscate computers used to upload” Tian’s statement. The police also informed the paper that they required the reporter’s notes from the telephone interview with Tian, which the paper agreed to provide.
Tian has faced an intensifying harassment campaign that the government has done little to stop. UMNO has filed a civil defamation suit against Tian for his remarks in Suara Keadilan.
On March 4, Malaysia Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a rally of Barisan Nasional Youth in Gombak, Selangor that they had to “eliminate traitors” and the crowd responded that Tian should be killed, yelling “chop off his head!” Protesters also attacked a car carrying Tian in Penang on March 15 after a PKR political dinner. Tian alleges that he has been targeted with violent threats and harassment by UMNO Youth members during PKR political meetings and campaign events at which he has appeared.
“As the election campaign unfolds, the government should not forget that it is responsible for ensuring equal protection of the law for all candidates,” Robertson said. “The threats against Tian Chua should be immediately and impartially investigated, and all those found responsible fully prosecuted.”