Sunday, 7 September 2014

MALAYSIA:Not guilty, says first academic charged with sedition

Emilia Tan Issue No:33

Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya, was on 2 September charged with sedition in a court in Kuala Lumpur. The public galleries were packed with academics and students from the university, and other supporters and rights activists. He pleaded not guilty.

Azmi is the first Malaysian academic to be charged under the 1948 Sedition Act, although a number of opposition politicians have faced sedition charges in recent weeks under the law that dates back to the British colonial era.

The professor, who was granted bail during the Tuesday hearing, will appear again before the court in October. He said in a statement later that he would fight the charge, saying it was a blow to academic freedom and freedom of expression.

“I hope reason will prevail,” he told well wishers at the court. Sedition can carry a jail term of up to three years.

Shocking charges

Azmi said he was “shocked” at the charges for comments he made relating to a Malaysian online newspaper on 14 August, on a 2009 crisis in the state government of Perak, describing the events of the time as “legally wrong”.

“My statements were based on established case law and democratic principles. They were given in my capacity as a law lecturer of 24 years standing,” he said.

Academics have been horrified at the charge, which they see as being used to silence anyone who criticises the government.

“If you believe in world-class universities, academics should be allowed to make professional comments. He [Azmi] is from the law faculty. He shouldn't be charged,” Rosli Mahat, vice-president of the University of Malaya academic staff association, told The Malaysian Insider online newspaper.

Rosli, who was at court with many other university staff and students to observe the proceedings, said the charges were “an affront” to the university.

Lau Yi Leong, secretary for national affairs for the Malaysia Youth and Students’ Democratic Movement, said academics were simply expressing their opinions in their professional capacity. Students fear they could be next in the firing line.

“Furthermore, it is undoubtedly clear that, at a time when new students are being enrolled into universities, it is the government’s intention to also warn the new students not to be too keen in applying their knowledge to social, political and economic issues,” Lau said.

Vince Tan, secretary-general of Progressive, University of Malaya – a student group – said in a statement last Tuesday: “Such charges show that the authorities have no regard for academic freedom, when an academician can be punished for commenting on an issue related to his field of study.

“When the intention of the government [is] to repeal a particular legislation, it should no longer be used to prosecute anyone. Such prosecution is also in utter disregard of the intention of the government of the day,” Tan added.

PM promised to repeal the law

Two years ago Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to repeal the 1948 Sedition Act and said it was to be replaced by a new National Harmony Act.

In a statement this week, the prime minister's office reiterated that the act would be repealed and replaced with the National Harmony Bill, which was currently being drafted. No timetable was given.

The Centre for Independent Journalism, or CIJ, added to the criticism, saying the continued use of the Sedition Act “makes a mockery” of the prime minister’s legislative reforms and pledge to repeal the act more than two years ago.

CIJ said in a statement from its directors Sonia Randhawa and Jac SM Kee that “too liberal” a use of the Sedition Act would stunt the function of universities and institutions of learning to the point that they would not be able to function appropriately.

“Restrictions must be necessary and proportionate. To censure legal opinion without demonstrating the threat to national security, public order or public morality is unnecessary and disproportionate,” the statement read.

Some activists believe that the move could backfire on the government and lead to stronger demands to bring forward the repeal of the Sedition Act just as the government previously changed the Internal Security Act that affected students’ political activities and academic freedom.

A government spokesperson said that academics, like other citizens, must adhere to the law. 

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