KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 – The American Bar Association (ABA) has sent a letter to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, expressing concern over Malaysia’s use of the Sedition Act 1948 against a lawyer and law lecturer. The ABA also reminded Putrajaya that it was going against international law in clamping down on critical views. ABA president William C. Hubbard said the sedition charges against human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen and law associate professor Azmi Sharom had violated their fundamental freedom, which he said Malaysia was obliged to respect.

“I wish to express the ABA’s concern regarding the pending prosecutions of attorney Eric Paulsen and (associate) Professor Azmi Sharom, which are part of an apparent pattern of harassment against lawyers and rights activists in Malaysia, with at least four other lawyers charged under Article 4 of the Sedition Act 1948 since 2014,” Hubbard wrote in the letter dated March 12. He reminded Najib that international law generally prohibits restrictions on the freedom of expression, adding that sedition laws were almost universally obsolete in common law jurisdictions.

“As a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Malaysia is obliged to respect and protect fundamental freedoms, including the right to freedom of expression and opinion,” said Hubbard, adding that freedom of expression was guaranteed in the Malaysian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Malaysia’s Sedition Act has been identified by international human rights experts and other states as “a tool to restrict freedom of expression in a manner inconsistent with international standards and norms”, he added.

Criminal penalties should only be reserved for exceptional instances, such as incitement to violence, and in countries which still maintained sedition law, their courts limited it to cases of an intention to incite violent overthrow of a lawfully constituted authority, coupled with actions and a capacity likely to achieve the results, Hubbard said. Paulsen, who is also Lawyers for Liberty executive director, and Azmi, were only expressing personal and legal views without any element of violent overthrow, according to Hubbard. “Mr Paulsen was deprived of his liberty for having expressed his concern over a government agency’s actions, which he viewed as inconsistent with the government’s stated goal of promoting religious tolerance,” wrote Hubbard.

“Mr Azmi Sharom was expressing his views as a legal scholar and lecturer on matters of the constitutionality of government action. Neither made any reference to violence or to the overthrow of the government in their messages.” Instead, their comments appear to be aimed at prompting debate on matters of public interest, Hubbard wrote. “Mr Paulsen and Mr Azmi Sharom have the right under international law to publish their opinion regarding a government agency’s efficacy and the legality of government action.” On February 5, Paulsen was charged with sedition over his Twitter post which allegedly criticised the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) for spreading extremism via Friday sermons.

Azmi was charged with sedition on September 2 last year over his comments in a news article titled “Take Perak crisis route for speedy end to Selangor impasse, Pakatan told”. “The ABA respectfully calls upon the government of Malaysia to take steps to ensure promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law, in compliance with its international commitments and in accordance with the Constitution of Malaysia. The ABA, a non-governmental organisation, represents some 400,000 members of the legal profession worldwide.

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