KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s government-controlled parliament early Friday approved tougher penalties under a sedition law that the United Nations called a threat to human rights and the opposition said meant “a black day for democracy” in the Muslim-majority country.
For the second time this week, the ruling coalition pushed through legislation denounced by rights advocates, after passing anti-terrorism legislation on Tuesday that allows authorities to detain people without charge.
The amendments to the Sedition Act extend the maximum jail term to 20 years from the current three years.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has targeted scores of his critics with the Sedition Act in a deepening crackdown on civil liberties following a poor government showing in 2013 elections.
However, following an outcry over the act’s revision, the government removed clauses allowing authorities to deny a suspect bail.
It also reduces the minimum sentence to three years, from an initial proposal of five years.
Amid pressure for reform, Najib had promised in 2012 to scrap the British colonial-era Sedition Act, long viewed as a tool to gag free speech.
But he reversed himself last year, saying the act would be retained and fortified.
“In order to realise our goal of building a stable, peaceful and harmonious state, the Sedition Act has been maintained,” he said late Thursday in an interview on state-controlled television.
The amendments were passed at around 2:30 a.m. Friday after a marathon parliamentary debate with opposition lawmakers fiercely opposed to the revisions, according to opposition lawmaker N. Surendran.
They appeared to soften the law somewhat, making it no longer illegal to insult the government, but made it illegal to incite religious hatred in the Muslim-dominated but multi-faith country.
Rights groups have said the Sedition Act remains open to wide interpretation and abuse by the government, which has a history of using security laws to stifle dissent.
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 the religiously diverse opposition.
“This is a black day for democracy in Malaysia. There is no freedom of speech under this abusive law,” Surendran who is with jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party told AFP.
“Now an individual charged under this law could face a mandatory jail term of three years and a maximum of 20 years in prison.”
On Thursday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on Malaysia’s government to withdraw the amendments.
“It is very disappointing that the Malaysian government is now proposing to make a bad law worse,” Zeid said before the amendments were passed.