KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysian prosecutors charged a high-profile law professor with sedition on Tuesday for an opinion he voiced on a political crisis that occurred five years ago, extending a recent crackdown on dissent from opposition politicians to academia.
Lawyers said the charge against Azmi Sharom, a lecturer at the Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and who writes a regular newspaper column, could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech as the government wavers on its pledges to expand civil liberties.
Four opposition politicians have been charged and another convicted this year under the Sedition Act, a relic of the British colonial era intended to keep a tight lid on racial tensions and social unrest in the multi-ethnic country. Four sedition charges have been pressed in the past nine days.
"There clearly now appears to be an attempt to create an environment of fear and self-censorship such that people now no longer take it upon themselves to comment on what is going on,"said Mr Andrew Khoo, co-chairperson of the Malaysian Bar Council's human rights committee.
Mr Khoo and Azmi's lawyer Gobind Singh said they could not recall the last time an academic was charged under the 1948 law.
Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged in 2011 that the law, which criminalises speech with an undefined "seditious tendency"against the government or which could upset racial harmony, would be repealed and replaced by new legislation.
Three years later, after a weak election result for the government last year that fanned racial divisions and emboldened conservatives in Mr Najib's long-ruling party, the proposed new National Harmony Bill remains far from being passed into law.
Critics say Mr Najib has caved in to calls from within his majority ethnic Malay party to get tougher on the opposition, which has gained in the past two elections, and on online news sites that carry strong criticism of government policies.
The flurry of sedition charges comes six months after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to five years in jail, in what rights groups said was a politically motivated case aimed at ending his career.
The government says the new bill is taking time because of extensive consultations with civil society groups and that it expects to present a draft to parliament by the end of 2015. "Like other countries, we are working to find the right balance between freedom of speech and national harmony in the age of online media," a government spokesperson said last week.
Mr Najib made civil liberties reform a hallmark of his leadership after becoming prime minister in 2009, saying Malaysia needed to adapt to the modern era. His government repealed the draconian Internal Security Act, but human rights groups have said that the replacement legislation is in some ways just as repressive as the old law. Detention without trial powers were restored under a penal code amendment last year.
Azmi, a ponytailed British-educated academic, has been a commentator on legal and political issues in Malaysia for years. He pleaded not guilty and requested a trial on the charge, which carries a maximum penalty of a RM5,000 (S$1,975.26) fine or three years in prison or both.
The charge against him relates to an Aug 14 article on the Malay Mail Online site in which he was quoted as saying that the collapse of an opposition state government in 2009 was "legally wrong" and resulted from a "secret meeting".
The opposition has long disputed the role played in that crisis by the Perak state sultan, who declined an opposition request to dissolve the state assembly for fresh elections and accepted a new government led by the ruling party. A senior opposition politician, the late Karpal Singh, was convicted in February for his comments on the Perak crisis.
Azmi said in a statement after posting bail that he was shocked by the charge, adding that his comments had been based on established case law and democratic principles. "They were given in my capacity as a law lecturer of 24 years standing," he said.
Mr Singh, Azmi's lawyer, said more sedition charges would likely be laid in the coming weeks. At least two other opposition members of parliament are being investigated for remarks they made. "We have not seen the last of it and there are going to be many others," he said.