(Bangkok) - The Malaysian opposition leader Karpal Singh faces up to three years in prison for a politically motivated sedition conviction that should be quashed, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 11, 2014, the Malaysian High Court will convene in Kuala Lumpur to determine the sentence for Karpal, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and legal counsel to Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently convicted on politically motivated sodomy charges.
Karpal was convicted on February 21 under the colonial era Sedition Act of 1948 and faces up to three years in prison and a fine of RM 5000 (US$1,535). He serves as a federal member of parliament from Bukit Gelugor, and faces disqualification from parliament if he is sentenced to more than one year in prison and fined more than RM 2000 ($614).
"The politically motivated prosecutions of Karpal Singh and Anwar Ibrahim appear to be nothing more than cudgels wielded by the government to make up for losses at the polling booth," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These misguided cases show Prime Minister Najib Razak's serious backpedaling on basic rights and the democratic process."
In March 2009, prosecutors charged Karpal with violating section 4(1)(b) of the Sedition Act for allegedly using "seditious words" during a news conference at his office. Specifically, he expressed his legal opinion on a constitutional matter during the political crisis in Perak state, saying, "In law, the decision of the Sultan of Perak can be questioned in a court of law." Such speech should be protected in line with the right to freedom of expression under international human rights law, such as is reflected in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
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 Malaysian constitution provides that no ruler may be charged in his official capacity in a court of law. Karpal suggested that the sultan's decision was subject to judicial review, but did not suggest that charges should be brought against him. The Sedition Act states that it is not seditious to "show that any ruler has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures."
In June 2010, the high court acquitted Karpal, noting the distinction between criticizing the sultan in his official capacity, prohibited under the federal constitution, and subjecting the sultan's decision to judicial review. The court of appeal overturned the acquittal in January 2012 and returned the case to the high court for trial, which ended in the February 2014 conviction.
"Malaysian authorities used the overly broad and ill-defined provisions of the Sedition Act to construct a case against Karpal with full knowledge that it could knock him out of politics," Robertson said. "But in going after Karpal, the Malaysian authorities are trampling on the rights of all Malaysians to freely express and exchange views on political and legal issues."
The Malaysian government has recently increased its use of the Sedition Act against political opposition members and activists. These prosecutions belie promises that Prime Minister Najib Razak made in July 2012 to repeal the sedition law in favor of a new National Harmony Act, which would allow greater criticism of the government.
In addition to the charges against Karpal, the authorities have charged six prominent political activists and elected officials with sedition for speeches on May 13, 2013, at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Those charged include Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar, Haris Ibrahim, Safwan Anang, Adam Adli, and Hishamuddin Rais. In reviewing video of the speeches, Human Rights Watch found that the speakers expressed anger about the elections, alleged there had been rampant election fraud, and called on Malaysians to demand reforms.
In a separate case, Tian Chua is also facing sedition charges for criticizing the government during fighting with militants in Lahad Datu, Sabah in February 2013. A Selangor state assemblyman, Suhaimi Shafie, has also been charged with sedition in connection with allegations that he criticized the sultan of Selangor on his blog.
In February 2014, P. Uthayakumar, founder of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) and a vocal political opponent of the government, lost his appeal before the Kuala Lumpur High Court to reverse his conviction on sedition, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Uthayakumar's alleged offense was to post on the Police Watch Malaysia website a letter he sent in December 2007 to the then-prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, claiming that mass atrocities had been carried out against people of Indian origin in Malaysia. "Prosecutions under the draconian Sedition Act are on the increase when they should be relegated to history," Robertson said. "Prime Minister Najib should fulfill his promise to the Malaysian people by scrapping the Sedition Act and ending prosecutions against Karpal Singh and other Sedition Act defendants."