LRWC condems trial of Malaysian lawyer Karpal Singh


For immediate release

VANCOUVER, April 1st, 2001 – Not content with brow-beating its former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, on arcane and trumped-up criminal charges, the government of Malaysia has now targeted the lawyer who defended him in court.

In an alarming violation of international human rights standards, Malaysia has charged Karpal Singh, a prominent human rights lawyer and former opposition member of the Malaysian parliament, with sedition.

Karpal Singh’s supposed crime? While urging the court to order an inquiry into Anwar’s in-custody treatment, Mr. Singh allegedly expressed a concern that “people in high places” might be conspiring to murder his client. At the time, Anwar appeared to be suffering from arsenic poisoning and was recovering from a savage beating at the hands of the Chief of Police.

If convicted, Singh faces up to three years in prison.

“These charges grossly undermine Mr. Singh’s right, and duty, to fully represent his client,” said Vancouver lawyer and LRWC member David Gibbons, Q.C..

Sedition is an archaic offence dating to 13th century England. Unlike old British law, Malaysia’s Sedition Act requires no proof of an intent to foment violence.

Mr. Singh’s trial, originally scheduled to commence on July 18, 2000, has been reset for May 7th, 2001.


Sedition is an archaic offence dating from the 13th century England, when censorship was considered necessary to prevent anarchy and to protect the rulers of the realm, who were believed to rule by divine right. There has not been a sedition prosecution in Canada in 50 years. Even then, the Supreme Court of Canada held that a conviction for sedition required proof of an intention to incite actual violence or disorder against the sovereign or the institutions of the state, for the purpose of disturbing constituted authority in some way. The Malaysian legislation requires no such proof, and the Act is so broad that it is easily manipulated by law enforcement officials. Any conduct with a “tendency” to promote ill-will amongst Malaysians, for example, is seditious under the Act.

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), is a committee of Canadian lawyers working to support lawyers in other countries who face imprisonment, intimidation and other abuses as a result of their advocacy. Its director, Gail Davidson, who has co-written a paper on the charge against Singh for the committee, states, “As a result, it is virtually impossible for citizens to know in advance what words or actions might offend the Act, and a charge is virtually impossible to defend.” Truth is no defense, and it makes no difference whether the person charged intended her words or actions to be seditious. Opponents of the ruling party have been convicted under the Act for statements critical of the ruling party in public speeches and newsletters. In 1997, an opposition Member of the Malaysian Parliament was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for criticizing actions of the Attorney General.

In Singh’s case, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada believes that the legislation was being used to impair the defence of Malaysia’s most prominent dissidents, Anwar Ibrahim, by silencing one of his lawyers. Mr. Anwar’s dismissal from his post as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance by Prime Minister Mahathir in September, 1998, his arrest and trial, first on abuse of power charges and then on sodomy charges, have divided Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party and

focused international attention on the state of democracy and human rights in the country. Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction on the abuse of power charges, his arrest, his in-custody treatment and the sodomy prosecution and conviction have all attracted criticisms from human right organizations and governments throughout the world. Amnesty International declared Anwar Ibrahim a prisoner of conscience and expressed the opinion that he had been arrested to silence him as a political opponent. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said that the sodomy convictions of Anwar Ibrahim and the co-accused Sukma Darmawan were the most glaring examples of the deterioration in Malaysia’s judicial system over the past few years. He cited the current charges against Karpal Singh as a further example, and said, “An erosion of confidence in the rule of law in Malaysia not only threatens democracy in that country but also raises questions about the current government’s respect for human rights and good governance.”

“These charges grossly undermine Mr. Singh’s right, and duty, to fully represent his client,” says David Gibbons Q.C., a Vancouver lawyer who plans to travel to Malaysia to observe Singh’s trial. Gibbons is a member of Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), a committee of Canadian lawyers working to support lawyers in other countries who face imprisonment, intimidation and other abuses as a result of their advocacy. “Charging someone for words spoken in open court sets an alarming precedent, because it violates the privilege that allows lawyers, judges, and litigants to speak frankly without fear of facing criminal or civil liability.”

“An immunity from liability for statements made in court has existed in common law countries for over 300 years and is essential for courts to function effectively”, says LRWC director Gail Davidson, who has co-written a paper on the charge against Singh for the committee. “Lawyers have a duty to make all the arguments necessary to fully represent the best interests of their clients, and they must be free to do so without fear of prosecution. This freedom is crucial when legal proceedings involve alleged abuses of power by the state. Lawyers must be free to stand between the citizen and the state, and to call into question actions of the state.” Davidson knows of no other reported case from any other common law jurisdiction where a lawyer has been criminally charged for statements made in court.

The Lawyers’ Rights Watch committee is particularly concerned that the charge against Mr. Singh is being clothed with legitimacy by the very fact that a trial is being held, says Davidson. “We view these charges as an attempt by the Malaysian government to usurp the power of the law for political ends.”

Malaysia is a constitutional democracy not unlike Canada, Davidson says, with a federal constitution which clearly provides for a legal and parliamentary system governed by the rule of law. “The Malaysian Sedition Act-the legislation being used to silence Karpal Singh- is a gross affront to that democracy.”


Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada: (Gail Davidson)

Tel: +1-604-738 – 0338, fax: +1 604 736-1175, Email:

3220 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, V6K 2V5