KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – A Malaysian court on Wednesday authorised an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, a lawyer said, amid a string of charges under the law against opposition politicians and other critics.
In recent months numerous government critics, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have been investigated, charged or convicted under the colonial-era act, despite a 2011 promise by Prime Minister Najib Razak to abolish it.
A district court approved an application by lawyers acting for an academic charged last month to have a high court consider whether the law is constitutional.
“The constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and the Sedition Act affects freedom of speech,” lawyer Gobind Singh Deo told AFP.
He said he was challenging the constitutionality since the act was not passed by Malaysia’s parliament but imposed during the transition from British rule in the 1950s. He added the challenge could halt other sedition cases, currently before the courts.
Critics have complained of a government crackdown on free speech, sparking fears for civil liberties and the rule of law.
Anwar, 67, was questioned last Friday over comments he made in a 2011 political speech, becoming the highest-profile person snared in the sedition dragnet.
Political tensions are also rising ahead of a separate October 28 appeal by Anwar against a five-year sodomy sentence. Anwar has dismissed the sodomy case as politically motivated to end his political career.
The Sedition Act, which carries a prison term of up to three years in jail, outlaws speech that incites hatred of the government or racial hostility, but critics say it is too vague and ripe for abuse.
Najib’s United Malays National Organisation has held power since independence in 1957 as dominant partner in a coalition and has a history of authoritarian tactics.
It has stepped up the use of the sedition law since it lost the popular vote in a general election last year for the first time. It still won a parliamentary majority.
Najib’s office has said the Sedition Act will eventually be replaced with new legislation.