The arrests of scores of protesters as well as two human rights lawyers in separate incidents yesterday and today in Malaysia are the latest troubling signs of an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly, Amnesty International said today.
“These latest in a string of recent arrests point to a clear and worrying trend and reveal the very grim reality of the Malaysian authorities’ stance on upholding basic freedoms,” said Hazel Galang-Folli, Amnesty International’s Malaysia Researcher.
“The space for dissent and debate in Malaysia is rapidly shrinking, under the guise of punishing ‘sedition’ or maintaining public order.”
Mass detentions of protesters
Today (23 March) at least 79 protesters were arrested at a sit-in protest outside the Customs Department in the Petaling Jaya area of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Around 40 riot police were sent to control the public action, and a “scuffle” was reported. Those arrested were among around 100 people protesting against a new Goods and Services Tax to be implemented in the coming weeks.
Colonial-era ‘sedition’ charges
The “sedition crackdown” continued as two human rights lawyers and staff members of the human rights organization Lawyers for Liberty were arrested under the 1948 Sedition Act, a draconian law dating back to Malaysia’s colonial days.
Michelle Yesudas, legal co-ordinator for the NGO, was arrested for “sedition” today following a post she made on Twitter expressing concerns about her personal safety after receiving threatening tweets.
And Eric Paulsen, the NGO’s executive director, was arrested yesterday, 22 March, for a tweet referring to the implementation of the Syariah Criminal Code (II) (1993) 2015 Enactment, locally referred to as the Kelantan State’s hudud (the criminalization of certain acts, purportedly according to Islamic principles). He was previously arrested in January 2015 and charged under the Sedition Act on 5 February for a different tweet in which he criticized a government department.
The two have been released on bail.
“The Malaysian authorities are increasingly using the outdated Sedition Act as a politically motivated tool to muzzle critics. At least 23 people have been arrested or have been investigated for sedition in the first quarter of 2015 alone – definitely a spike from last year’s known total of 29. This is a dangerously slippery slope into repression of all dissent, and arrests under this law, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders, must be halted immediately,” said Hazel Galang-Folli.
Over the past year, Malaysian authorities have made increasing use of the 1948 Sedition Act, a draconian law originally targeting those who called for Malaysia’s independence, and which gives the government sweeping powers to arrest and lock up critics.
Amnesty International has long expressed concerns about the law, which criminalizes a wide array of acts, including those “with a tendency to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government” or to “question any matter” protected by Malaysia’s Constitution.
Those found guilty under the Act can face up to three years in jail, be fined up to MYR 5,000 (approximately USD 1,570), or both. The law does not comply with international human rights law, and violates the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also guaranteed in Article 10 of Malaysia’s Constitution.