The Malaysian government must cease efforts to strengthen the country’s draconian Sedition Act 1948, which has been used with increasing frequency and severity to suppress and punish criticism of the government, said the International Commission of Jurists today.
An amendment to Malaysia’s Sedition Act tabled at parliament today would make sedition a non-bailable offence, aggravating the Sedition Act’s incompatibility with international human rights standards.
“The Sedition Act has been used against the government’s political opposition much more frequently than in previous years,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s International Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia. “Since January 2015, ICJ has recorded at least 36 academicians, lawyers, politicians, students, and activists have been investigated, arrested, or charged under the Sedition Act.”
According to the ICJ, this is a significant spike when compared to the total number of reported sedition cases recorded by Malaysian civil society in previous years: 2010 (5 cases); 2011 (3 cases); 2012 (7 cases); 2013 (19 cases); 2014 (42 cases).
“Instead of repealing or restricting the Sedition Act, the new amendment actually makes it worse by limiting the ability of courts to grant bail to people accused under the Sedition Act,” Gil added.
The amendment specifically states that if the Public Prosecutor certifies in writing that it would not be “in the public interest” to grant bail to the person charged with sedition, the person shall therefore not be released on bail, a matter otherwise normally determined by the courts in each case.
Denying bail based on a mere certificate by the Public Prosecutor removes any requirement that the court be presented with evidence to remand a person in custody and it may also preclude effective inquiry by the court into the lawfulness of the arrest and detention.
“The proposed amendment removes the court’s discretion to determine whether to grant bail or not when presented with a certification from the Public Prosecutor,” Gil said. “It appears therefore that the court has no power to require evidence or even articulation of the reasons to evaluate whether it is reasonable and necessary to remand the person charged with the offence in custody.”
Under international law, the right to seek provisional release before final conviction, for instance through posting bail, is closely linked to the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention.
Under international standards, a detention that complies with national law can nevertheless be considered arbitrary based on elements of inappropriateness, injustice, and lack of predictability.
In principle, anyone arrested on criminal allegations should have the right to seek release pending trial, including through bail proceedings before a court of law.
National laws should only allow bail to be denied where the facts of the individual case give rise to some specific reasonable ground for continued detention, such as preventing flight, or interference with evidence, or the commission of further violent offences.
Further, where the charges are incompatible with human rights – for instance when it is based entirely on protected freedom of expression – then there can be no basis whatsoever for pre-trial detention. Thus, any detention under the Sedition Act, a vague and ambiguously defined law, would be an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
Finally, the ICJ recognises that there have been instances when those arrested under the Sedition Act have allegedly committed acts that are recognisably criminal in character.
In these instances, other criminal laws in Malaysia could provide a proper basis for any investigation and detention.