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Malaysia toughens sedition law punishments

Lawmakers in Malaysia have approved tougher penalties for sedition, saying it's to prevent racial conflict. The move has been criticized by the UN while Malaysia's opposition has called it a "black day" for free speech.

Lawmakers in Malaysia have approved tougher penalties for sedition, saying it's to prevent racial conflict. The move has been criticized by the UN while Malaysia's opposition has called it a "black day" for free speech.

The strengthened Sedition Act was approved early Friday by Malaysia's parliament after more than 12 hours of debate and efforts by the opposition to have the changes scrapped.

Amendments included extending the maximum jail term to 20 years from the current three and introducing a minimum three-year sentence for certain cases, as well as making it illegal to propagate sedition over the internet - sparking fears of online censorship.

Under the revisions, it was no longer illegal to criticize the government or judiciary, instead the law covers those deemed to be inciting racial or religious tensions. After an outcry this week, a clause which would have allowed authorities to deny a suspect bail was removed.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the law was necessary to maintain harmony in the ethnically diverse Southeast Asian country where Islam is the main religion.

"We will not and cannot stand for the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict," Najib said in a televised interview before the law was passed. "We must have laws that restrict and suppress anyone who can make claims, statements and any news in magazines, articles and so on that can incite the people, hate the people to the point of causing riots, conflicts and unrest," Najib also said.

While campaigning for the 2013 elections, Najib had promised to scrap the British colonial-era law, which has long been viewed as a tool to stifle free speech. However, scores of people have been detained under Malaysia's sedition law since then, including many in recent weeks following the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges he says were politically motivated.

'Black day' for democracy

Opposition lawmaker Gobind Singh Deo said the amended law left too much to interpretation.

"A crime needs to be specific so that people know that it is a crime and they know that they can be punished if they commit it. Leaving it open allows for abuse," he said.

"This is a black day for democracy in Malaysia. There is no freedom of speech under this abusive law," another opposition politician, N. Surendran, said.

Before the law was passed, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein had called for it to be repealed, saying the amendments "would seriously undermine the freedom of expression and opinion in the country."

Human Rights Watch also slammed the changes, calling them "a human rights disaster for Malaysia that will have a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression, both in daily life and in online communication."

It's the latest in a series of recent controversial law changes in Malaysia. On Tuesday, the country's ruling coalition pushed through a law to combat terrorism, which would allow authorities to detain people without charge.

se/jil (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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