KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is the latest to be targeted in a government crackdown on free speech that has sparked deep fears for civil liberties and the rule of law, his lawyer said Tuesday.
Authorities have opened a sedition investigation into 67-year-old Anwar, attorney Latheefa Koya said. He is to be questioned Friday by authorities, his party added in a statement.
That would make Anwar — who already is appealing a highly controversial March sodomy conviction that threatens to end his political career — the highest-profile person snared in a sedition dragnet that has seen new charges emerge on a weekly basis.
“Anwar Ibrahim has become the latest target in the string of people being charged for sedition,” Latheefa said.
The government, which has a history of authoritarian tactics, has stepped up its use of the British colonial-era sedition law since it lost the popular vote in elections last year.
The Sedition Act outlaws speech that incites hatred of the government or racial hostility, but critics say it is too vague and ripe for abuse.
The ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) clung to power in last year’s polls, but the opposition won nearly 51 percent of the vote — a historic rebuke for a party that has governed since independence in 1957.
The crackdown is widely viewed as a desperate bid by UMNO to harass the increasingly successful opposition.
Amnesty International said the new investigation into Anwar “smacks of persecution” and should be dropped immediately.
“Anwar Ibrahim has been a favourite target of the authorities for more than a decade, and this appears to be the latest attempt to silence and harass a critical voice,” said Rupert Abbott, the rights group’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director.
The sedition probe centres on comments Anwar allegedly made during a 2011 political speech, his People’s Justice Party said, without specifying the offending remarks.
AFP was unable to immediately confirm the claim with police.
The sedition blitz has rapidly accelerated in recent weeks, with more than a dozen people charged or under investigation for sedition.
Political tensions are rising ahead of Anwar’s October 28 appeal against his five-year sodomy sentence, amid fears that his jailing could trigger anti-government protests.
He has denounced his conviction on charges he sodomised a former male aide — which controversially overturned an earlier acquittal — as a government-orchestrated bid to decapitate the opposition. Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
In the past two weeks, courts have convicted two student activists of sedition and sentenced them to prison terms of 10 months and one year.
Malaysian civil-society groups and the legal community have demanded that the arrests stop and that Prime Minister Najib Razak honour a 2011 election promise to repeal the Sedition Act.
Sedition convictions bring up to three years in prison.
Najib’s office insists the Sedition Act will eventually be replaced with new legislation.