Malaysian Political Blogger Charged with Sedition

Photo by Susan Loone

Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the editor of a popular Malaysian website called Malaysia Today, was ordered jailed Tuesday on sedition charges after a flame-throwing article last month that linked Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu and accused Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of withholding evidence about the case.

Altantuya was executed on October 20, 2006, allegedly by two of Najib’s bodyguards at the request of political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s closest friends. She had flown to Malaysia to confront Abdul Razak, who had jilted her, and to ask for money for support when she was killed with two bullets to the head and her body blown up with plastic explosives in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam. She was last seen being bundled into a car and driven away from Abdul Razak’s house.

The article, titled “Let’s Send the Murderers of Altantuya to Hell,” highlighted a series of controversies and irregularities in the trial of Abdul Razak and the two bodyguards, and questioned whether Najib is immune from Malaysia’s laws. The murder trial has been droning on for nearly a year, raising questions of whether it is being deliberately delayed because of the closeness of the three to top political figures.

Stung by the questions, Najib’s press secretary, Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, issued a statement defending his boss’s innocence on April 29 and threatened legal action if allegations in the press and elsewhere of Najib’s involvement in the case continued. The statement also denied that Najib had anything to do with erasing the victim’s immigration records, or that he had ever met her. Many questions were left unanswered, however, with bloggers subsequently questioning the statement and with questions seemingly growing to the point where observers are beginning to question Najib’s viability to succeed Abdullah Badawi when the prime minister ultimately decides to step down.

The police showed up at Raja Petra’s door last Friday to question him about the matter. He refused to cooperate. On Tuesday, he refused to pay RM5,000 in bail Tuesday in protest of what he called “political harassment” after being charged, and elected to go to jail instead. There was no indication when he would be released.

"Is it seditious to influence people against corrupt leaders? There is nothing seditious," he told reporters outside the court where he was charged.

The sedition charge is unusual to say the least, since such charges are laid for conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state. Although scathing, his questions over allegations that the deputy prime minister was connected to the case hardly appear to constitute inciting rebellion. Some legal authorities in Kuala Lumpur had expected Najib to file suit for defamation, although others pointed out that a civil suit for defamation would expose the deputy premier to motions for discovery and questioning over his relationship, if any, to the dead woman.

The leadership’s depth of irritation over Raja Petra is evidenced by the fact that he has been charged although he is a member of the royal family of Selangor. It is extremely rare for royalty to be charged for any criminal offenses. Some members of royalty have literally got away with murder. However, as a continuing thorn in the side of Malaysian government leaders, he has been arrested and questioned before. Malaysia Today, he said in an interview last year with local media, gets as many as 1 million hits a day.

In the offending article, Raja Petra called attention to the prosecutors' sudden announcement before the start of the trial that only three people were involved in the murder and the abrupt change in the prosecuting team who built the case and subsequently resigned.

The article also charged that an affidavit filed by Razak Baginda after his arrest said he accused had gone see Najib and Rosmah Mansor, Najib's wife, about his problems with Altantuya. It also said that Najib had written to the Malaysian embassy to support Altantuya's visa application and that a photograph exists of Altantuya, Najib and Baginda that was taken in Singapore. Najib has sworn to Allah that he had never met the woman. Rosmah last week also denied any involvement in the matter.

The most explosive part of the article suggested that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi might be holding on to evidence given to him that implicates Najib to “keep Najib in line” and accused the prime minister of being an accessory to murder, adding that “burying evidence that will affect the outcome of the trial and interfere in seeing justice done renders Abdullah as guilty as those currently on trial and those who also should be on trial but are not.”

Opposition politicians condemned the sedition charge as political intimidation and asked for justice to be served. The nonpartisan reform organization Aliran commented that the arrest "only raises more questions. It raises suspicion that it is meant not only to politically bludgeon Raja Petra but also to make an example of him for the rest of the blogging fraternity and civil society."

“This is more political harassment of bloggers. Is this part of the reforms that the prime minister is talking about? Is this the new open government?” William Leong, the People's Justice Party treasurer and Raja Petra’s lawyer, told reporters.

“The case has dragged on for far too long. It is undermining public confidence in the system,” said Lim Kit Siang, the founder of the opposition Democratic Action Party, which his son now leads, said when asked about his views on the case.

*The original version of this story inadvertently displayed a picture of the Thai flag. We apologize for the blooper.