KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian police arrested opposition politician Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, for sedition on Monday, prompting the U.S. State Department to express concern over the freedom of expression in Malaysia.
The charge of sedition followed a speech in parliament last week by Nurul Izzah, a 34-year-old member of parliament, in which she referred to a February ruling by the country’s highest court. The court had upheld a sodomy conviction in February against Anwar, the biggest political threat to Malaysia’s government, and sentenced him to five years in prison.
“This police investigation is illegal, unconstitutional and a serious interference with the rights and privileges of parliament,” N. Surendran, Anwar’s lawyer, and a member of his People’s Justice Party, said in a statement.
It was unclear which specific words by Nurul Izzah were considered by the police as seditious. The authorities have not issued a statement. Parliament officials did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by her detention and that recent charges of sedition against critics raised serious concerns about freedom of expression, rule of law, and the independence of the judicial system in Malaysia.
“To further restrict freedom of expression will only lead to further erosion of important pillars of Malaysia’s democratic system,” it said in a statement.
Malaysia’s Sedition Act, which dates from British colonial times, criminalizes speech with an undefined “seditious tendency.” Critics have said the government has used the law to silence dissent, preventing open debate and discussion.
The government says the law is necessary to clamp down on inflammatory actions that could stir ethnic or religious tension.
Nurul Izzah was summoned to a police station to make a statement and then arrested. She is expected to spend the night in lockup until a remand hearing on Tuesday.
Anwar is now serving a five-year sentence following a highly publicized court proceeding amid widespread perceptions the prosecution was motivated by political vengeance, although the government has denied interference.
After an appeal against Anwar’s conviction was rejected last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Washington to do more than issue expressions of concern, but the State Department said it was “not engaging in quid-pro-quo actions.”
Washington is keen to maintain solid ties with Malaysia, not least given the latter’s role as chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and as a member of the U.N. Security Council.
Malaysia is due to host the annual East Asia Summit in November, which President Barack Obama is expected to attend.
Reporting by Trinna Leong; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Bernadette Baum