KL tweaks amendments to Sedition Act after backlash

THE Malaysian government was forced to back down after its proposed amendments to the controversial Sedition Act drew criticism from both the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and opposition MPs for being harsh and draconian.

One of the changes will now allow bail for those charged under the colonial-era law.

Another change pertaining to seditious acts that lead to bodily harm or property damage will reduce the minimum jail term from five to three years. 

"This amendment will preserve the discretion of the court over whether to grant bail for sedition offences," said an explanatory statement on yesterday's changes, which followed a rare call from BN backbenchers for Putrajaya to withdraw amendments proposed on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been fighting fires on several fronts, especially criticism from former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who wants him to step down.

Last year, Datuk Seri Najib reneged on a 2012 pledge to repeal the Sedition Act. Instead, he promised his party, Umno, to strengthen the law, a move now opposed by BN backbenchers.

In particular, a section allowing the public prosecutor to deny bail to a person accused of sedition without giving the judiciary any say came under fire from across the political spectrum.

With the changes, the amendments were expected to be passed at the end of yesterday's debate in Parliament, which was still ongoing at press time.

From February to last month, about 160 people, mostly activists and opposition figures, were arrested and investigated for seditious acts, such as questioning the Federal Court's decision to jail opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy and taking part in rallies calling for his release.