KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's Cabinet has ordered the suspension of the colonial-era Sedition Act, widely used to rein in dissent, and is working on doing the same for the death penalty as it prepares to repeal both laws possibly by the end of the year.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's coalition romped to a shock win in a May general election on the back of promises to clamp down on rampant corruption and repeal oppressive laws, some of which date back to British rule.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said on Thursday (Oct 11) that the Cabinet had decided to suspend use of the Sedition Act as they prepare a bill to repeal it altogether.
"As far as we are concerned, a decision has been made and it has to be communicated to the attorney-general. And, of course, it's for him to decide what to do next," he said in a recording of a press conference heard by Reuters.
Before the May polls, dozens of politicians and activists were detained and charged under the Sedition Act as former Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration worked to clamp down on dissent, especially after news broke in 2015 of a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Bills to repeal both the Sedition Act and the death penalty are expected to be tabled before the parliament which sits on Monday.
MORATORIUM ON EXECUTIONS
The minister in charge of law Liew Vui Keong said earlier Thursday there would be a moratorium on executions for inmates currently on death row, according to local media.
"Since we are abolishing the sentence, all executions should not be carried out," the Star newspaper quoted him as saying.
The moratorium on the death penalty would save, among others, two women accused of assassinating the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.
A Malaysian court last year ruled the case could proceed against Indonesian national Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam after Kim Jong Nam's murder at Kuala Lumpur Airport.
Australian citizen Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, who was found guilty of drug smuggling by an appeals court in May, will also win a reprieve.
The 54-year-old grandmother was arrested in December 2014 after she was found in possession of 1.1kg of crystal methamphetamine while passing through Kuala Lumpur on a flight from Shanghai to Melbourne.
In a statement on Thursday, human rights group Amnesty International said the decision was a "major step forward".
"We are calling on the Malaysian parliament to completely abolish the death penalty for all crimes, with no exceptions," Amnesty secretary-general Kumi Naidoo said in the statement.
Amnesty International ranked Malaysia 10th in the use of death penalty among the 23 countries that carried out capital punishment in 2016.
Between 2007 and 2017, 35 individuals were hanged, the New Straits Times newspaper said.
A total of 1,267 prisoners are on death row, making up 2.7 per cent of the 60,000-strong prison population.
The decision was welcomed by rights advocates, who said there was never any proof that mandatory death sentences deterred offenders from violent or drug-related crimes.
"The death penalty is barbarous, and unimaginably cruel," N Surendran, an advisor with the Lawyers for Liberty rights group, said in a statement.
Once capital punishment is scrapped, Malaysia will have the moral authority to fight for the lives of Malaysians facing death sentences abroad, he added.
Neighbouring Singapore, also a former British colony, maintains the death penalty for certain crimes such as murder and drug trafficking.
Only 23 countries retain the death penalty, with China believed to be the "world's top executioner", according to Amnesty International in its report last month on capital punishment in 2017.
There were 993 executions recorded in 2017 in 23 countries, but Amnesty's numbers do not include the "thousands" it says are believed to have been executed in China, which classifies this information as a state secret.
Excluding China, Amnesty says Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan - in that order - carried out 84 per cent of all executions in 2017.