KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's parliament early Friday approved tougher penalties for sedition in a move criticised by the United Nations and described by the opposition as "a black day" for democracy and free expression.
For the second time this week, the ruling coalition pushed through legislation that has been denounced by rights and legal advocates, after it on Tuesday passed an anti-terrorism law that allows authorities to detain people without charge.
The amendments to the Sedition Act extend the maximum jail term to 20 years from the current three years and establish a minimum three-year jail term for certain cases.
The revised act also makes it illegal to propagate sedition on the Internet, sparking concerns over possible Web censorship.
Courting votes ahead of 2013 elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak had promised to scrap the British colonial-era Sedition Act, long viewed as a tool to gag free speech.
But after a poor showing in those polls, Najib's government has targeted scores of its critics with the law. Last year Najib went back on his pledge, announcing the act would be retained and "strengthened".
"In order to realise our goal of building a stable, peaceful and harmonious state, the Sedition Act has been maintained," he said late Thursday in an interview on state-controlled television.
The amendments were approved in the early hours of Friday after a marathon effort by the opposition to stop them. However, after an outcry this week, the government removed a clause allowing authorities to deny a suspect bail. The revisions no longer make it illegal to insult the government, but they ban speech that incites religious hatred in the Muslim-dominated but multi-faith country.
"We will not and cannot stand for the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict," Najib said.
Critics of the Muslim-controlled government, which has seen voter support slide, say it is increasingly falling back on "protecting Islam" to curb speech by members of the religiously diverse opposition.
"This is a black day for democracy in Malaysia. There is no freedom of speech under this abusive law," opposition lawmaker N. Surendran said.
Rights groups say the definition of "sedition" remains open to wide interpretation and abuse by the government, which has a history of using security laws to stifle dissent.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called on Thursday for the law to be repealed.
"It is very disappointing that the Malaysian government is now proposing to make a bad law worse," Zeid said, adding the act is routinely used "to curb the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression".
Human Rights Watch called the amendments "a human rights disaster for Malaysia that will have a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression, both in daily life and in online communication".
Besides the blitz of sedition charges against its critics, the government in February jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for five years on a sodomy conviction he says was fabricated by Najib's government.