A Troublesome Law for Troublemakers

The problem of slapping sedition charges on troublemakers like Raja Petra Kamarudin, the owner-editor of the country’s top political portal, is that it has an equally troublesome habit of boomeranging.

The joke making the rounds in town is that you can’t charge RPK, as he is popularly known in blogsphere, with sedition. This is because everything he writes looks like and sounds like sedition. He may just end up spending the rest of his natural life as a guest of His Majesty’s Prison, should sedition charges be preferred against him every time he posts on his www.malaysia-today.net.

Well, the government has done just that on Tuesday 6 May.

The Charge: Publishing a seditious article, “Let’s send the Altantuya murderers to hell”, on 25 April, which allegedly implicated Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor in the October murder of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu.

The Penalty: If convicted, he faces up to RM5,000 fine or three years in the slammer or both.

The Trouble: “I am happy. I want to challenge the government. We bloggers have declared war on the government. We are not scared of the government. The government should be scared of us.”

The last time the court convicted someone for sedition, he ended up becoming Chief Minister. That’s Lim Guan Eng, the new CM of Penang.

Lim was then an opposition MP who spoke out in 1995 against what he considered as statutory rape of a 15-year-old Malay schoolgirl by a government minister. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment, the schoolgirl to three years “protective custody”, and the minister got away scot free.

On 28 February 1995, Lim Guan Eng was charged under the Sedition Act for prompting “disaffection with the administration of justice in Malaysia”. On 17 March 1995, an additional charge was brought under the Printing Presses and Publications Act for “maliciously printing” a pamphlet containing “false information”.

At his first trial in 1997, Lim Guan Eng was convicted on both counts and fined RM 15,000. The government appealed against the ‘leniency’ of the sentence. At a subsequent hearing before the Court of Appeal, the sentence was increased to three years imprisonment. A consequence of the sentence is that Lim Guan Eng was automatically barred as a member of parliament and could not stand for elections until 8 March this year when he stood and won and was duly sworn in as the new Chief Minister of Penang.

“If I fail and have to go to jail, I have no regrets. I have no regrets of going down fighting for the principles of truth and justice. And pursuit of human rights, especially women’s rights. There can be no women’s rights if women rape victims are considered equally responsible, and even detained, whilst the accused remain free,” Lim Guan Eng said at when charged with sedition.

“There are injustices in the law which are mind-boggling … The lesson is clear – choose your rapist carefully … As a woman, especially a Muslim woman, I am angry, disgusted and ashamed … As a mother, I now have real fears for my daughter. What protection can we hope for our daughters if, in the interests of politics, a minor can so easily be sacrificed?” said Marina Mahathir, of the sedition charge.

Speaking of his son’s incarceration a decade later, Lim Kit Siang, the strongman of the Democratic Action Party, in the wake of the party’s recent phenomenal electoral victory said: “This is the greatest pain in my life. I would rather it was me as it wouldn’t be so painful if it was me.”

When being asked by Sin Chew Daily whether he regretted bringing Guan Eng into politics, Kit Siang said: “It is not the question of regret, it was really painful.” That was the closest the veteran politician came to baring his soul in public.

The most celebrated sedition case is known as The Great Ahmedabad Trial of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1922.

This is how a newspaper reported the trial. “When Mahatma Gandhi entered the Central Hall of the Government Circuit House at Ahmedabad on the 18 March, 1922 to face a trial on a charge of sedition about two hundred spectators inside the improvised courtroom stood up as a mark of respect to the frail figure in loincloth.

“The frail, serene, indomitable figure joked in a characteristic manner looking at them saying: ‘This is like family gathering and not a law court.’”

Gandhi’s trial came in the wake of the mounting political agitation against British oppression in the country following his famous call for non-cooperation and civil disobedience which began on 1 August 1920. The immediate cause, however, was his publication of three articles criticising severely the repressive measures adopted by the government to put down the struggle. The articles in question were branded as seditious and calculated to cause disaffection against the existing government.

To the Mahatma, the issue was simply law versus conscience. He did the unthinkable in any defence against sedition. He pleaded guilty as charged.

He termed sedition laws as the “Prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”

“I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system.”

He explained to the court: “Non violence is the first article of my faith; it is also the last article of my faith; but I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I consider has done an irreparable harm to my country or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips.”

Then came his most extraordinary plea: “The only course open to you, the Judge, is either to resign your post which I know is impossible for you to do and dissociate yourself from evil if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil thing and that in reality I am innocent; or to inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is, therefore, injurious to the public weal.”

The trying Judge, R.S. Broomfield, in passing the sentence conceded that “It would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of millions of your countrymen you are a great patriot and a great leader.”

Then he sentenced the “Great Soul” to six years imprisonment. Due to illness, he did not serve the full term. A commentator pointed out: “Every word uttered by Gandhi in the course of this trial and the articles he wrote to defend his countrymen’s right of non-violent non-cooperation with an unjust imperialist system is aflame with patriotic passion and will ever remain a testament of freedom against tyranny.”

The British won its Sedition case but lost an empire.

The Sedition Act is indeed a troublesome law to use against troublemakers.

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