In a rare protest by Malaysia's legal profession, more than 500 lawyers braved the scorching noon heatoutside Parliament yesterday to condemn this year's "sedition blitz", saying they were dutybound to fight an unjust law that has seen over 20 people hauled up for questionable offences.
Those who have been charged under the Sedition Act include academics, students and at least nine opposition figures, with several already convicted, such as the late Karpal Singh, one of the country's most respected MPs. He was fined in March for comments he made about the Sultan of Perak over the removal of a chief minister. The MP died in April in a car accident.
Last month, a student activist was sentenced to 10 months in jail for a speech allegedly calling for the toppling of the government. Those awaiting trial include an opposition lawmaker for "insulting Umno", a key party of the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's lawyer was also hauled up for saying the judiciary had erred in convicting his client of sodomy earlier this year.
Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged in 2012 to repeal the law as part of a raft of democratic reforms to win over liberal voters in last year's general election.
But Datuk Seri Najib, also Umno president, has since come under heavy pressure from his own party and right-wing groups to reverse the reforms after BN failed to sway the left-leaning vote in the 2013 polls and lost the popular majority for the first time since independence in 1957.
Critics, such as the Malaysian Bar, complain that the vague definition of offences under the Sedition Act has led to abuse of the law by the government to stifle political dissent.
"It is clear the Act is not used for purposes of security but to clamp down on differing views," Bar president Christopher Leong told reporters before a walk to the legislative House, only the fourth protest march in the Bar's 67-year history.
The last such march in 2011 was to protest against a new law governing public assemblies, which the Najib administration insisted would pave the way for peaceful gatherings previously outlawed under the Police Act.
Yesterday, a delegation of 10 senior lawyers met Cabinet minister Mah Siew Keong, who received on behalf of the Premier a memorandum calling for Mr Najib to deliver on his promise and impose a moratorium on the use of the law in the meantime.
But Umno has said a survey of its grassroots show three-quarters of its divisions are calling not just for the Sedition Act to be maintained, but also a return of the repealed Internal Security Act that gives the government power to detain individuals without trial.
Mr Najib has tried to position himself as a reform-minded moderate but appears to be backtracking on his 2012 vow, saying recently that his government must consider the views of all stakeholders, to decide whether to repeal, replace or amend the Sedition Act.
This article was first published on October 17, 2014.
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