Malaysia's King Sultan Muhammad V has abdicated, a statement from the National Palace said on January 6, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR: Three people have been arrested in Malaysia for allegedly insulting the former king on social media after his shock abdication, sparking anger on Thursday from activists at the use of “draconian” laws.

Sultan Muhammad V stepped aside at the weekend after just two years on the throne. No official reason was given, but it came after he reportedly married a Russian ex-beauty queen while on medical leave.

It was the first time a Malaysian monarch had given up the throne before the end of his term.

Under a unique arrangement, the throne changes hands every five years between the rulers of the nine states headed by Islamic royalty.

National police chief Mohammad Fuzi Harun said two men aged 46 and 27, and a 26-year-old woman, were arrested under tough sedition laws on Tuesday for allegedly posting insulting remarks about the abdication on Facebook and Twitter.

The trio face up to three years in jail if found guilty.

While their role is ceremonial, Muslim-majority Malaysia’s royalty command great respect, and criticising them is seen as deeply offensive. People are regularly arrested under the colonial-era sedition act for insulting royals.

Injustice or loyal rule?

But Latheefa Koya, executive director of rights group Lawyers for Liberty, criticised the arrests, telling AFP: “The police should not give in to mob rule amid the push by some people for the authorities to act.”

A statement from the group, which pushes for legal reforms, added that the sedition act was a “draconian piece of legislation” and it was shocking Malaysia’s new administration was using it.

The government, which came to power last year after ousting an authoritarian regime, had pledged in its election manifesto to abolish the act and several other laws seen as repressive, but is yet to do so.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad also suggested authorities should not overzealously target people accused of posting insults.

“With regards to freedom of speech, if someone speaks factually, you cannot criminalise the person,” he said. “If we shut everyone’s mouth … even when a crime has happened, then there will be injustice in the country.”