Malaysia’s government plans to strengthen its much-criticised sedition law with longer jail terms and other changes, fresh after enacting an anti-terrorism law denounced by the opposition and rights groups as a threat to civil liberties.
The amendment to the Sedition Act, tabled in parliament on Tuesday, will extend the maximum jail term to 20 years from the current three years, and allow authorities to deny a suspect bail and seize their travel documents.
According to the amendment, it will no longer be illegal to insult the government, but speech inciting religious hatred in the Muslim-dominated but multi-faith country will be illegal.
“This is in line with the intention of the government to protect the sanctity of religions professed by the multi-religious society in Malaysia. An act of insulting and ridiculing any religion may cause disharmony and threaten public order,” the amendment said.
Critics of the government, which has seen voter support slide, say it is increasingly falling back on “protecting Islam” in order to curb free speech by progressives and followers of other faiths in the religiously diverse opposition.
Amid pressure for reform, Prime Minister Najib Razak had promised in 2012 to scrap the British colonial-era Sedition Act.
But since a 2013 ruling-party election setback, authorities have charged dozens of people under the law, and Najib reversed himself late last year, saying the act would be retained and fortified.
“We not only reject these amendments, we reject the Sedition Act in its entirety,” Nurul Izzah, a parliament member and daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, said in a statement.
She called for the act to be repealed, saying the expression of opinions should not criminalised “on the whim of those who disagree”.
Nurul herself was charged with sedition last month after reading out in parliament a statement by her father criticising his jailing in February. He was imprisoned for five years on a sodomy charge he says was fabricated by the government.
In a Twitter posting on the sedition amendments, Eric Paulsen, head of Malaysian legal activist group Lawyers for Liberty, said: “Soon we will see a situation similar to Egypt, where almost half of the opposition are behind bars facing politically motivated trials.”
On Tuesday, the government-controlled parliament passed a tough anti-terrorism law aimed at countering Islamic militancy that allows authorities to hold suspects for lengthy periods without judicial review.
The law is being seen as another broken promise by Najib, whose government in 2012 scrapped a much-feared security law allowing virtually indefinite detention, and which was repeatedly used against government critics.
Amnesty International called the terrorism legislation “a shocking onslaught against human rights and the rule of law”.
The sedition revisions also will ban speech promoting secession by any Malaysian state, a clause apparently aimed at growing complaints in the states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island over domination by the central government.