We have yet another attack on free speech and the free press from one of our allies. Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, has been hit with nine counts of sedition for tweets critical of the country’s judiciary. It is an outrageous prosecution brought under a law that defines sedition as any comment that promotes hatred toward the government. Zunar previously defended his art against claims that it is defamatory. Zunar faces up to 43 years in jail if found guilty on all nine charges.
Absolute monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei announced in January a harsh form of sharia law will be enacted. Effective in three phases beginning now and spanning two years, the edict eventually allows for the stoning to death of homosexuals, adulterers, and apostates; for amputation of limbs for those convicted of theft; and flogging for abortions and the consumption of alcohol. The capital offense provisions of the law reportedly apply only to Muslims.
Sultan Bolkiah claims this is a step in solidifying a long cultural tradition in the sultanate which was established in the fourteenth century. Increasingly conservative Muslim politicians and officials in Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia are beginning to move from sharia being limited to family matters to now criminal law and capital offenses. Acheh in Indonesia is included especially. While Brunei enjoys one of the highest per capital income in the world, has many social benefits such as effectively free health care and education, its population of over 416,000 individuals now is seeing human rights restricted in a trend that is generating international condemnation in the West. Al-Jazeera reported that many members of the Muslim ethnic Malay majority have voiced cautious support for the changes. However, non-Muslim citizens, who are fifteen percent of the population, led a rare burst of criticism on social media earlier this year, but largely went silent after the sultan called for a halt.
“Theory states that God’s law is harsh and unfair, but God himself has said that his law is indeed fair,” the sultan said.
But will Western governments be willing to isolate countries engaging in abuses of individuals and oppression of the human rights of populations or is trade and money going to become the focus and inconveniences such as abuse continue to be ignored?