There is a cloud hanging over Malaysia’s ruling party. In the March 2008 elections, the Barisan Nasional coalition, under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, was returned to power by a very narrow margin, having lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. Its waning popularity has not been helped by a scandal involving the Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. His adviser and close friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two police bodyguards are currently on trial accused of the gruesome murder of 28-year-old Altantuya Shaaribuu, a Mongolian woman believed to have been Razak’s paramour, who was fatally shot in the head in October 2006. Open discussion of the trial appears to have been stifled.
On 6 May 2008, a well-known government critic, 58-year-old Raja Petra Kamarudin, who runs the popular Malaysia Today website (www.malaysia-today.net), was charged with sedition for accusing Najib and his wife of involvement in the murder. Both have issued public denials of any involvement in the killing.
British-born Kamarudin set up the Malaysia Today website to widen the discussion of Malaysia’s political and social scene. His support of the opposition, during the recent election, reportedly contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against the ruling government. He is also known for his outspoken criticism and advocacy of transparency, accountability and justice in the Malaysian political system; and his controversial online allegations about the inner workings of the ruling elite have earned him a huge following. Kamarudin was charged over his article of 25 April, ‘Let’s Send the Altantuya Murderers to Hell’, where he recounts a dinner party conversation about the murder trial:
‘Key issues’ raised by my non-lawyer friends, who all argued as if they were conducting the Altantuya murder trial, were matters such as how Altantuya’s immigration records could be erased from the immigration computers, the letters Najib wrote to the Malaysian embassy supporting Altantuya’s visa application, the photograph of Altantuya, Najib, Razak and Kalimullah taken during Altantuya’s birthday party in the Mandarin Hotel in Singapore, and much more.
Later, he suggests: ‘Rumour has it, and it remains just that, a rumour, is that all this “evidence” has been given to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’, and speculates that Abdullah might be using the information he has received ‘to keep Najib in line’. He goes on to contend that if the Prime Minister of Malaysia is withholding crucial evidence in a murder trial, he is ‘an accessory to murder and burying evidence that will affect the outcome of the trial’.
On 2 May, police raided Kamarudin’s house, seizing a laptop and a computer before summoning him for questioning at the Federal Commercial Crimes Investigations Department (CCID) in the capital. The writer denied the charge of sedition laid against him on 6 May, and claimed that it was politically motivated. Initially he refused to post bail as a matter of principle. He was only released on 9 May after his wife persuaded him to change his mind. His detention outraged his supporters, who, according to Reporters without Borders, raised almost 8,000 euros in just twenty-four hours toward his bail after an online campaign.
Civil society groups in Malaysia have criticised the Sedition Act, which criminalises, among other things, ‘a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government’, as an archaic colonial legacy. It is seen as a means to prevent criticism against the powers that be, and to stifle debate.
Kamarudin’s trial for sedition began on 6 October and, if found guilty, he faces up to three years in prison. But in the meantime, he had already been re-arrested on 12 September for allegedly ‘insulting Islam’ and publishing articles on his website which ‘tarnished the country’s leadership to the point of causing confusion among the people’. The editor filed a habeas corpus application at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur on 16 September seeking his release from detention, but on 22 September, in a move believed to be intended to thwart his probable release, the Malaysian Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar signed an order to remand him in custody for up to two years under section 8 of the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial. Remand orders under section 8 cannot be challenged in court and can only be ordered or overturned by a minister of the government.
Kamarudin is being held at the Kamunting Detention Center in northern Perak. On 23 September, his lawyers submitted another habeas corpus application to the Kuala Lumpur High Court to overturn his detention. PEN and other human rights organisations consider him to be detained in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Readers may like to send appeals to the authorities protesting the detention of Raja Petra Kamarudin for the peaceful expression of his opinions, and calling for his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to:
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi
Prime Minister’s Department
Federal Government Administration Centre
Bangunan Perdana Putra
Fax: 00 60 3 8888 3444
Last month we received the good news that veteran journalist Win Tin had been amnestied by the Myanmar military junta, on 23 September 2008, as a ‘goodwill gesture’.