Malaysia to impose travel bans on government critics

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia is able to impose a three-year travel ban on its citizens who discredit or ridicule the government, the Star newspaper reported on Wednesday, as criticism against the scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak grows.

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Malaysia’s immigration department enforced this ruling several months ago in a move to safeguard the country’s image, the newspaper said, quoting an unnamed source.

The immigration director general Sakib Kusmi confirmed to the paper the existence of such a provision. Reuters could not independently verify the report that the penalty had been used.

It was not immediately clear who the provision had been used against as Kusmi did not comment and the newspaper did not say.

The report comes after outrage this month over a prominent activist being barred from traveling outside the country. Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairwoman of pro-democracy group Bersih, was not allowed to travel to South Korea to receive an award, the group said.

Bersih organized street protests calling for Najib’s resignation last year which drew more than 200,000 people.

The prime minister has resisted calls to step down over a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and $681 million that was transferred to his personal bank account.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing, and has said he has taken no money for personal gain.

He has sacked critics within his ruling party and has used a different law, the Sedition Act, which has been criticized by rights groups, against opposition party leaders, activists and lawyers.

His government also passed the National Security Act last year, which critics say gave sweeping powers to the prime minister, imperiling democracy and human rights.

“A travel ban on critics will mark a dangerous escalation in the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

“The right to freedom of speech is a key human right which the Malaysian people deserve to enjoy just like any other people.”

Opposition leaders said the provision is another sign of the government abusing its powers.

Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Alison Williams