Civil society highlights repressive sedition law in submission to UN

Expression

In October 2018, The Human Rights Foundation Center for Law and Democracy and the Brunei Project made a submission on Brunei to the UN Human Rights Council in the lead up to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record in 2019. In the report, the organisations highlighted how Brunei "does not have sufficient legal safeguards to ensure its citizens’ freedom of speech".

The report highlighted the use of the Sedition Act to “target dissidents in the country”. Under the Act, it is unlawful to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the Sultan and his government. The organisations stated that the law violates international standards on freedom of speech as it was “overbroad, and vaguely worded, without illustrations or explanations of broad umbrella terms”. These characteristics allow the law to be abused by those in power to silence free speech.

One case highlighted in the report is of Shahiransheriffuddin bin Shahrani Muhammad who was charged in 2017 under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act, an article that relates to distributing seditious publications. It stated that Shahrani was charged after he published a Facebook post that criticised the new ‘halal’ (permissible or lawful in Islam) certification regulation released by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Shahrani stated that the new regulation harmed small, home-based businesses. He pled “not guilty” and was allowed to post bail. He faces a fine of up to USD 5,000 and two years’ imprisonment

According to the report, after he posted bail, a group of men forced Shahrani to go to the Enforcement Unit of the Ministry, where he was further charged with “insulting a member of the Muslim Council” and for “questioning the rulings of the Muslim Council” under the Shariah Penal Code. He was questioned for over two days without legal counsel and was not provided a copy of the charges levied against him. He faces 11 years in prison and a fine of USD 15,000 to USD 25,000 under the Shariah charges. The Shariah proceedings will be initiated after his sentencing hearing for sedition.

Due to repressive legislation, self-censorship and the fact that leading daily newspapers belong to the Sultan’s family, who is the head of state, independent reporting of this case and other human rights issues are virtually non-existent in the media. Brunei is ranked 153 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

Brunei is an absolute monarchy in which the Sultan exercises executive power, and in which there are no elected representatives at the national level. The Sultan continues to wield powers under a long-standing state of emergency imposed in 1984. These emergency laws continue to restrict freedoms of assembly and association. Online speech is monitored by authorities.