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Political cartoonist Zunar is used to being harassed by the Malaysian government.

Over the past five years, the government has banned seven of his books of cartoons, threatened his publishers, and called him and his assistants in for police questioning. But even he was surprised when authorities arrested him in February 2015 – not for his cartoons, but for his criticism of the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in prison. Outraged at the verdict, Zunar wrote nine tweets. He now faces nine counts of sedition which could result in 43 years in prison. 

“If I criticise a government official or judge and they don’t like it, I am fine if they sue me for defamation,” says Zunar. “That is the democratic way. But they are using a criminal law against me. They came to my house at night, handcuffed me, treated me like a criminal. That is not right.”

Since losing the popular vote in the 2013 general election, though retaining a parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government have been treating statements even remotely critical of the government as a crime.

For instance, senior opposition MP Teresa Kok was charged with sedition for a satirical video poking fun at the government which she posted for Chinese New Year. Eric Paulsen, founder of Lawyers for Liberty, was charged with sedition for criticising the government agency that handles religious affairs. In one of the more extreme cases, University of Malaya law professor Azmi Sharom was charged with sedition for stating his legal opinion that actions taken by the government six years ago were illegal. Dozens of others, including many opposition leaders, have been investigated, arrested and sometimes charged for critical speech.

As if to bring an Orwellian flavour to the wave of repression, peaceful protesters have been arrested and threatened with up to twenty years in jail for committing “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

Newspapers reporting on the spiralling corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose board of advisors is chaired by Najib, have been ordered to suspend publication for three months. Najib has not been able to explain how over $700 million found its way into his personal bank account, but his government has blocked websites reporting on the scandal.

The government has even resorted to banning the yellow t-shirts of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), which organised a major street rally in central Kuala Lumpur in late August, as “prejudicial to the national interest.” Those making statements viewed as “insulting” to Najib or other public officials have also been treated as criminals and prosecuted under provisions of the penal code.

In a July visit, British prime minister David Cameron reportedly pressed Najib in private about the crackdown and the medical condition of Anwar Ibrahim. The timing of the trip was embarrassing for Cameron, as the day before in Singapore he made a long scheduled speech about the evils of corruption. Malaysian activists were deeply disappointed that Cameron offered no public critique of the rights situation or corruption, apparently in deference to trade relations.

Expectations are now high for the upcoming visit of President Barack Obama in November for the annual East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The message to Najib – who last year played golf with Obama in Hawaii – should be that if he wants to be taken seriously as a leader on the world stage, he needs to stop treating criticism as a crime and reverse Malaysia’s downward spiral towards authoritarianism.

Obama and other world leaders in Kuala Lumpur should publicly call for the dropping of all charges against peaceful critics of the Malaysian government, and the repeal of the Sedition Act and other vague laws that criminalise speech. And instead of just pushing for proper medical care, Obama should call for the release of Anwar Ibrahim.

The stakes are high: as many Malaysians point out, if the downward spiral isn’t stopped, Malaysia risks a political meltdown that could undermine the huge strides it has made in recent decades towards its cherished goal of becoming a “developed” country by 2020.

Linda Lakhdhir is a legal consultant at Human Rights Watch and author of Human Rights Watch’s new report on Malaysia, ‘Creating a Culture of Fear’

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