Malaysia: ICJ condemns the arrest of lawyer, reiterates call for repeal of Sedition Act
The arrest and criminal investigation today of prominent human rights Malaysian lawyer Eric Paulsen, apparently in connection to messages he sent on Twitter, is another move towards Malaysia’s accelerating use of the archaic and draconian Sedition Act, said the ICJ.
Eric Paulsen (photo), co-founder of Lawyers for Liberty, was arrested in the afternoon of 22 March 2015 at the Dataran Merdeka underground in Kuala Lumpur.
Although the exact basis of the arrest is not yet clear, his lawyers believe it was because of his Tweets criticizing efforts to introduce religion-based criminal offences and punishment (hudud) by the Kelantan state government.
Eric Paulsen was detained overnight and has yet to be charged with any offence. During the remand hearing on his case at noon today, the court denied an extension of his detention, but the police kept him in detention until 6pm today for questioning.
According to media reports, the postings “were seen as an insult which could disturb public peace,” one of the bases for invoking the Sedition Act.
“Malaysian authorities have been increasingly resorting to the Sedition Act to silence any political criticism, and now they’ve taken the alarming step of expanding it to cover even statements about religion,” said Emerlynne Gil, International Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia at the ICJ. “The Malaysian government is trying to position itself as the authority on religious matters, while at the same time violating the right to free expression as well as Malaysia’s Constitution.”
On 22 March 2015, Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, commented through his own Twitter account that the police “views seriously” comments on religion made by those who are “not experts on the subject.” He further said, that the police “ha[ve] no choice but to take action” against those people who comment on religion.
The IGP’s comments were made in relation to the launching of an investigation against the Business Radio Station (BFM) and its presenter, Aisyah Tajuddin, for criticizing the implementation of hudud in Kelantan.
In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised that the Government of Malaysia would abolish the Sedition Act.
This promise, however, was reversed when Najib Razak announced in November 2014, that the Act would instead be strengthened to include provisions to protect the sanctity of Islam and on the secession of the Sabah and Sarawak states.
“The Sedition Act of 1948 is archaic and it’s high time the government followed through on its promise to get rid of this legislation,” said Emerlynne Gil.
This is Eric Paulsen’s second investigation under the Sedition Act this year, as he was arrested in January and then charged in February under section 4(1)(c) of the Act for a Twitter comment regarding the Malaysian Islamic Development Department.
The ICJ underscores that the Government’s actions contravene Principle 23 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which states that “lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly.
In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights….”
The 1948 Sedition Act, originally enacted by the British colonial government and amended several times over the years, criminalizes speech and publications considered to have “seditious tendencies”.
The term “seditious tendencies” is ambiguously defined to mean any kind of speech or publication that causes “hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection” against any ruler or the government or promotes “ill will and hostility between the different races or classes”.
The law also considers “seditious” any speech or publication that questions the special privileges of the Malay people, as provided in the Constitution.
Furthermore, sedition is a strict liability offence in Malaysia, which means that the intention of a person allegedly making seditious statements is irrelevant.
For instance, a person making a statement may not have the intent to cause “hatred or contempt” towards the government, but may nonetheless be held liable for sedition if authorities believe that the person in fact incited such feelings.
The ICJ considers that the Act, by its very terms, contemplates restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression that are grossly overbroad and inconsistent with basic rule of law and human rights principles.
Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, e: emerlynne.gil(a)icj.org, t +66 2 619 8477 ext. 206 or +66 840923575