Malaysia: Drop Sedition Charges Against Parliamentarian

Repeal Sedition Act, Used as Political Weapon

(HRW) – New York:  Malaysia's attorney general should immediately drop politically motivated sedition charges against Karpal Singh, a prominent lawyer and opposition member of parliament, Human Rights Watch said today.

His trial is to begin on August 12, 2009. Human Rights Watch also urged the government to repeal without delay the colonial-era Sedition Act 1948, long used selectively against the government's political opponents.

On March 17, the government charged Karpal, national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, under Section 4 (1)(b) of the Sedition Act. He is accused of using "seditious words" in a February 6 comment to journalists that the legality of a decision to return control of Perak's state government to Malaysia's ruling coalition could be questioned in court. Karpal has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail. If found guilty, Karpal faces up to three years in prison or a fine of up to RM5,000 [US$1,400] or both. As of April, 45 prosecution witnesses were due to take the stand.

"These sedition charges against Karpal are utterly baseless," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Right Watch. "This is just an excuse to remove a powerful political opponent."

Perak was one of five states won, albeit by a razor-thin majority, by opposition candidates who worked in concert to defeat the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition in the March 2008 national elections. After several Perak assembly members crossed over to join the BN in January and February 2009, BN regained a majority. Rather than dissolve the state assembly and call for new elections, Sultan Azlan Shah decided in favor of BN, prompting Karpal's call for a court hearing. Suits related to the legitimacy of the newly constituted assembly are still in contention.

This is the second time Karpal has been charged under the Sedition Act. During his 2001 defense of Anwar Ibrahim against corruption charges in 2001, Karpal stated that Anwar's failing health in detention was "due to a high-level conspiracy to poison him with arsenic." The police charged Karpal with sedition, though then-Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail later withdrew the charges.

The Sedition Act defines "seditious tendency" as, "a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any ruler or against any government … to raise discontent or disaffection among the subjects of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [the Malaysian monarch] or of the ruler of any state … (or) to question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by" certain articles in the Federal Constitution.

Article 181 of the constitution provides that no ruler may be charged in his official capacity in a court of law. Karpal did not suggest that charges should be brought against the sultan but suggested that his decision was subject to judicial review. The Sedition Act states that it is not seditious to "show that any ruler has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures."

BN, which has ruled Malaysia since independence, relies on the Sedition Act as well as the Internal Security Act to repress free expression and assembly to silence and punish its critics.

Human Rights Watch urges that such laws be repealed or reviewed to conform to international standards.

"It's a fallacy to suggest Malaysia needs laws that violate basic rights in order to maintain a peaceful and harmonious society," said Pearson. "Malaysians have time and again proven themselves capable of exercising the basic democratic rights to which they are entitled. It's time their government listened."