Malaysian opposition in crosshairs of 'sedition blitz'

Malaysian opposition in crosshairs of 'sedition blitz'
File photo: In this file picture taken on June 1, 2013, Malaysian attorney N. Surendran attends a press conference at the People's Justice Party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR- Malaysian attorney N. Surendran appeared in court last week to defend a fellow opposition lawmaker accused of insulting the powerful ruling party - then returned hours later to face a sedition charge of his own.

Surendran's revolving door at court is the result of a flurry of sedition and other charges widely seen as a campaign to harass the opposition, sparking fears Malaysia's long-ruling regime is lurching back to its authoritarian ways.

Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged two years ago that his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) would abolish the Sedition Act, part of broad liberalisation promises to shore up sagging voter support.

But the reforms have foundered amid conservative resistance within UMNO, and the opposition says a crackdown is under way to thwart its growing electoral success.

"It's a sedition blitz. This is clearly an attempt to stifle dissent," said Surendran, who is handling opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's appeal against a controversial March sodomy conviction.

Surendran was hauled up for sedition after saying the sex charge was fabricated by the government to derail the opposition.

The wave of sedition charges has been roundly criticised by groups including the independent Malaysian Bar Council, which has called it "an intense period of oppression against the citizenry and regression in the rule of law." UMNO has ruled multi-ethnic Malaysia since independence in 1957, bringing rapid growth while frequently using the organs of power to cow opponents.

But liberal-minded voters have increasingly flocked to the multi-racial opposition.

'Attack on democracy'

Seeking to reverse that trend, Najib replaced some repressive laws in recent years, and in 2012 said the Sedition Act was next, calling it a remnant of a "bygone era".

The British colonial government introduced it in the 1940s to curb criticism of authorities amid a communist uprising. Convictions bring up to three years in prison.

But the act remains in force and its use has accelerated, especially since elections in May 2013 in which the opposition won the majority of the popular vote yet failed to take parliament.

Opposition-linked rights group Suaram said at least 14 people have been charged since then - including three opposition legislators in the past two weeks and a respected university lecturer on Tuesday - and several others investigated.

Attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail declined to comment to AFP.

Critics have long accused UMNO of unaccountability and misrule, issues spotlighted by the disappearance in March of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The government was globally criticised for a chaotic and secretive response. The plane's fate remains unknown.

Prominent lawyer and electoral reform activist Ambiga Sreenevasan called the sedition surge an "attack on parliamentary democracy", saying UMNO was clamping down to stave off eventual electoral defeat.

"It is absolutely shocking, worrisome, and legally wrong. Some of these charges are so tenuous. They have obviously decided that critics are a nuisance and must be silenced," she said.

It remains unclear why so many charges are emerging now.

But Najib is under pressure from conservative forces that have ratcheted up ethnic Malay nationalist rhetoric since last year's election shock, sowing fear in the large Chinese and Indian minorities.

Former hardline premier Mahathir Mohamad, still an influential conservative, last month publicly withdrew support from Najib over his liberal vows, fuelling speculation that the mild-mannered prime minister could be dumped.

Tension also is rising ahead of Anwar's October 28 appeal against his five-year sodomy sentence, amid fears that his jailing could trigger protests.

'Sledgehammer approach'

Najib's office insists the Sedition Act will be replaced with a "National Harmony Bill" to curb hate speech, possibly tabled by late 2015.

"Like other countries, we are working to find the right balance between freedom of speech and national harmony in the age of online media," his office said in a statement, adding the recent sedition charges were a "matter for the courts".

Speculation is rife, however, that the replacement bill has stalled.

Saifuddin Abdullah, a leading UMNO moderate involved in pushing the bill forward, said it was being opposed by forces who "still believe in a sledgehammer approach" on free speech.

"I am very concerned with the recent (sedition) cases. It does not show that the government is in the process of repealing it," he said.

Opposition figures, meanwhile, fear the harmony bill will merely provide a new basis for suppressing free speech.

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