Opposition politician pleads not guilty, accuses government of stifling free speech as regional elections loom.
Prosecutors in Malaysia have charged an opposition leader with two counts of sedition for insulting the country’s revered sultans, according to media reports.
Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, a popular politician with the conservative Islamic party, PAS, appeared in court to face the charges on Tuesday.
He pleaded not guilty, according to Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency.
Sanusi’s remarks, made in a political speech earlier this month, questioned decisions taken by the Malaysian royalty regarding the formation of government at the federal and state level, according to other media reports.
Following his court appearance, Sanusi, who is also the chief minister of Kedah state, accused the government of stifling free speech.
“It seems that in Malaysia, we can’t say anything,” he was quoted as saying.
“In Malaysia, we have a fearful government that uses the police to arrest and suppress our freedom of speech, with all public agencies being used to impede the development and wellbeing of the people. I am confident that with these charges, many Malaysians [now] realise their [government’s] real intentions,” he said.
If found guilty, Sanusi faces up to three years in prison and a maximum penalty of 5,000 ringgit (about $1,100).
Malaysia’s sultans play a largely ceremonial role, including acting as custodians of Islam in the Muslim-majority country, and are held in high regard by the public.
Negative remarks about the country’s royalty can be prosecuted under a colonial-era Sedition Act, which has been used against people who criticise the sultans on social media. But sedition charges brought against Malaysian politicians have been rare in recent years.
Neighbouring Thailand has a strict lese-majeste law banning insults against its monarchy.
The charges against Sanusi come as political tensions rise in Malaysia ahead of regional polls next month in which the opposition alliance – which includes PAS – is expected to pose a strong challenge to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim‘s ruling alliance.
Kedah is one of the six states in Malaysia that will elect a new government on August 12.