KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian man opted to go to jail on Tuesday instead of paying bail after he was accused of sedition for implying the country’s deputy premier had a hand in the murder of a Mongolian woman, his lawyer said.
Raja Petra Kamarudin, who runs the independent news website Malaysia Today (www.malaysia-today.net), pleaded not guilty to the charge of publishing a seditious article on his website.
“This is becoming a test case,” his lawyer, Karpal Singh, told Reuters. “This is the first time a blogger has been charged with sedition.”
Raja Petra is charged with implying in a post on April 25 that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife were involved in the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian model.
Najib has denied the allegation through a spokesman, calling it “unfounded” and “designed to tarnish his standing within the Malaysian public”.
Karpal said Raja Petra refused the court’s offer of bail of 5,000 ringgit (806 pounds) until October 6, when the case is scheduled to resume, saying it was a matter of principle.
“He is refusing to go on bail,” he added.
If convicted, the 58-year-old Raja Petra could face a fine of 5,000 ringgit, or three years’ in jail or both.
Raucous commentary on the Internet has upset the Malaysian government, which is accustomed to respectful treatment by the domestic media on pain of losing their licenses.
Chafed by a government promise not to censor the Internet, authorities are looking for ways to rein in the commentary, which some analysts even see as one reason for a stunning election setback suffered by the country’s ruling coalition in March.
In the polls, the ruling National Front coalition surrendered an unprecedented five states to the country’s opposition and was reduced to a simple majority in parliament from the two-thirds that had earlier allowed it to change the constitution at will.
A rights campaigner criticised Tuesday’s action, saying the government was using Malaysia’s broadly worded sedition laws to silence critics and harass bloggers.
“We ... firmly believe that the use of the Sedition Act is being done to protect narrow political interests,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, of the Malaysia-based Centre for Independent Journalism.
A prominent political analyst, Abdul Razak Abdullah Baginda, who ran his own think-tank, has been charged with abetting the murder while two policemen were charged with the killing.
All three have pleaded not guilty, but all face mandatory death by hanging if convicted.
The model, Altantuya Shaariibuu, was shot in the head twice and her body blown up with plastic explosives in a jungle just outside Kuala Lumpur in October 2006, days after she came looking for Razak, who in turn was close to Najib.
($1=3.155 Malaysian Ringgit)
Reporting by Jalil Hamid; Editing by Jeremy Laurence