Eight people have been charged with criticizing Malaysia's Sultan of Perak on the internet, as the authorities stepped up a crackdown on the country's bloggers this week.
Businessman Fuad Ariff Abdul Rashid and his lawyer wife, Fatimah Maisurah Abdullah, were charged on Monday with two counts of posting critical comments against the Sultan on the ruler's official website. This followed a nationwide swoop on bloggers last Friday, which saw six people charged with similar offences.
Amnesty International has called on the Malaysian government to drop all charges against the bloggers.
"This development is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Malaysia and has set a very dangerous precedent for people wishing to express their views on the internet," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.
The charges against the eight come at a time of heightened tension in Perak State about the role of the monarchy and accusations that the government is trying to shut down discussion about this debate. Malaysia has a rotational monarchy, where the heads of each of the nine hereditary states occupy the throne for five years.
"The internet was one of the few venues available for Malaysians to express their views relatively freely, and now it looks like the government will extend its restrictions on free press to the web," Sam Zarifi said. "For a country that claims to be on the cutting edge of communications technology, this is a very troubling step backward."
The offences carry a maximum fine of 50,000 Ringgits ($13,600) or up to a year in jail under the country's Communication and Media Act. However, provisions of the Act itself state that it should not be used to censor the internet. This is the first time the law has been used to charge people for comments posted online.
Of the six people charged last week, one has already pleaded guilty and been fined 10,000 Ringgits ($2,720). The seven others are awaiting trial after being released on bail.
Meanwhile, opposition parliamentarian and lawyer Karpal Singh has been charged with sedition for his threat to sue the Sultan of Perak over the political crisis in Perak State. Singh had claimed that the Sultan had breached the State’s constitution when directing the resignation of the Chief Minister.
He has since received death threats, and been mobbed by angry youth members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), leader of the ruling coalition. However, the lawyer has received strong support from Malaysia's 13,000-strong Bar Council, which has defended Singh's right to voice his opinion.