(New York) – The Malaysian attorney general's office should withdraw all pending cases under the country’s abusive Sedition Act of 1948, Human Rights Watch said today. The recently formed Pakatan Harapan government should promptly seek repeal of the law, which has long been used to prosecute peaceful political dissent.
The attorney-general’s office has withdrawn charges in several sedition cases in recent weeks but has yet to act in others that raise rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
“Malaysia’s Sedition Act is an overly broad law that has consistently been used for political purposes against critics of the government and the judiciary. It should be repealed,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The law is totally inconsistent with international free speech standards, which recognize the right to criticize all government officials.”
Malaysia’s Sedition Act criminalizes any conduct with a “seditious tendency,” such as broadly tending to “excite disaffection against” or “bring into hatred or contempt” the government, the judiciary, the king, or the ruler of any state.
The previous Malaysian government under former Prime Minister Najib Razak used the law aggressively to punish critics. The Pakatan Harapan coalition, recognizing that the Sedition Act is “oppressive and unjust,” promised in its 2018 election manifesto to repeal it.
The previous administration filed numerous sedition cases against those who criticized the Federal Court decision affirming the sodomy conviction of Anwar Ibrahim in February 2015 – a conviction that has now been effectively set aside by Malaysia’s king.
While some of those cases, including those against political cartoonist Zunar, attorney N. Surendren, and R. Sivarasa, a member of Parliament and deputy minister, have now been withdrawn, others remain pending and should be dropped, Human Rights Watch said. Charges still pending include a sedition charge against S. Arulchelvan, for a statement critical of the decision issued on behalf of the Parti Socialis Malaysia, and a charge against activist Lawrence Jayaraj, for criticizing the verdict on social media.
Other pending cases in which the defendants have sought withdrawal of the charges include that of lawyer Eric Paulsen, who is facing a sedition charge for a comment criticizing the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM). At least three of those charged with sedition for statements made at a forum in May 2013 after the 2013 General Election are also awaiting decisions from the attorney general’s office. Tian Chua and Haris Ibrahim, both of whom have been convicted and whose cases are on appeal, have requested that the government withdraw its opposition to their appeals, while Tamrin Ghafar, whose case is ongoing, is seeking withdrawal of the charges.
“Malaysia’s new government should not be continuing abusive prosecutions filed by the prior administration using this unjust law,” Robertson said. “The government should withdraw all charges and appeals involving the Sedition Act, announce a moratorium on investigations and prosecutions under the law, and then move promptly to repeal it.”