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Malaysia: High Court decision curtails lawyers’ freedom of expression
The Kuala Lumpur High Court’s decision today to convict prominent Malaysian lawyer Karpal Singh on charges of sedition is inconsistent with international law and standards regarding free expression of opinion by lawyers, the International Commission of Jurists said.
“This conviction sends a message that lawyers in Malaysia are not free to express their opinions about legal issues,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s International Legal Advisor on Southeast Asia.
Karpal Singh’s conviction was based on the fact that during a press conference held at his law firm in early 2009 he had spoken allegedly “seditious words” when questioned about whether Sultan Azlan Shah had the legal authority to remove the province’s Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, from office.
“This case is another sign of the lack of respect of the Malaysian government for the principle of free expression,” said Gil. “Karpal Singh was expressing an opinion in his capacity as a lawyer over a matter of law. He has every right to do that, as a lawyer, and of course as someone exercising his right to free expression of his views. He also has acted in fulfilment of a core function of the legal profession, which is to contribute to the public discourse on matters of law.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers specifically provide that lawyers, like ordinary citizens, are entitled to freedom of opinion and expression. They have the right “to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights” without fear of suffering professional restrictions or repercussions due to their lawful action.
The High Court has fixed 7 March 2014 to hear Karpal’s mitigating circumstances, and for sentencing.
Under section 4(1) of the 1948 Sedition Act, Karpal Singh now faces a fine of up to RM 5,000 (approximately US$1,5010) and/or imprisonment of up to three years.
The conviction may force Karpal Singh to give up his seat as a member of the Malaysian parliament. Under the Federal Constitution, an elected representative is disqualified from office if fined more than RM 2,000 or jailed for a term exceeding one year.
Karpal Singh has provided legal defense in several high profile cases, including that of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose trial on charges of ‘sodomy’ has drawn heavy criticism in Malaysia and internationally.
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