Australian lawyers support colleagues’ fight against sedition

Australasian lawyers are among a group to stand up for Asia-Pacific colleagues that are protesting against an “archaic” Act being used to stifle freedom. A top lawyer explains why it’s significant

The Law Council of Australia is one of a group of legal organisations around the world that has shown solidarity and support for the Malaysian Bar in its protest against the use of the Sedition Act 1948.

Many say the Malaysian government is using the “archaic” and “authoritarian” piece of legislation to supress legitimate dissent and curtail universal human rights, especially that of freedom of speech.

Last week Malaysian lawyers undertook a ‘walk for peace and freedom’ against the continued use of the Sedition Act, calling for their government to honour its promise to repeal the legislation.

The Law Council of Australia stood alongside LAWASIA, the New Zealand Law Society and other legal associations in demanding the repeal of the Act and the immediate withdrawal of criminal charges against everyone currently facing prosecution.

LAWASIA representative, Ian Haynes, says it’s clear that the Act is being used selectively, and only people who are seen as critical of the Malaysian government are subjected to investigation and prosecution under its powers.

“Malaysia’s Prime Minister has promised to repeal the Sedition Act several times since July 2012 but that has never happened,” he says. “The authorities have continued to use it and people prosecuted have included members of the legal profession.”

Haynes, who is a consultant at NZ firm Kensington Swan, told Australasian Lawyer that APAC lawyers are showing support for their Malaysian counterparts because they recognise the importance of standing up for members of the profession that face persecution simply for carrying out their duty.

“It’s a matter of international solidarity and promotion of the rule of law,” he says.  “It would be unthinkable if we were unable to criticise the government here…

“But one of the first things [some] governments try to do is disempower the legal profession, because it regards them as a significant impediment to what they want to achieve – there are so many examples of that. Take Fiji some years back.”

During the coup d’état there, the Fijian Law Society slammed the government and said what it was doing was illegal, says Haynes.

In response, the government swiftly took away power from the Society, and set up its own regulatory body. The Fijian Law Society building also “mysteriously” burned down overnight, he says.

“You don’t have to look far to find situations where a government is trying to [change the law] and the legal profession is standing up and saying, ‘this is wrong’, and risking life and limb in the process.”

Thankfully, the Malaysian Bar’s ‘walk for peace and freedom’ last week was carried out successfully without reports of violence, and with more than 2,000 people in attendance.

Foreign representatives including members of LAWASIA, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, The International Commission of Jurists and the Law Council of Australia; travelled to Malaysia to observe the walk.

Organisers say the police were cooperative and facilitated the smooth and uncontentious running of the event. Furthermore, the Prime Minister of Malaysia had arranged for a delegation from the Bar to be received at Parliament House, where it was able to present its views.

“Whether that will result in the Malaysian Government deciding to repeal the Sedition Act or not will remain to be seen,” says Haynes. “But the government did receive the deputation politely, and acknowledged it.”

Recently, the Law Council of Australia also released a statement of support for the Malaysian Bar’s protest.

“The Law Council has been keeping a watching brief on this issue and is alarmed by reports that a number of those that have been prosecuted under the Sedition Act are members of the Malaysian legal community,” it said.

“Lawyers must be free to represent their clients without interference and to advocate fearlessly for the practical acceptance and application of the rule of law.”

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