BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – A former government officer who criticised the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) in a 2017 Facebook post was convicted in absentia on Thursday and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.

Shahiransheriffuddin bin Shahrani Muhammad — also known Shahiran Leong — was charged under the Sedition Act for publishing a Facebook post on July 16, 2017 attacking the ministry’s halal certification policy, which he claimed disadvantaged small businesses.

In the same post he went on to use profanity to insult religious officials, and called on Bruneians to “dissent”.

The post quickly went viral, and Shahiran, who at the time worked as a health promotion officer at the Ministry of Health, was charged with sedition on July 27, 2017. He denied the comments had seditious intent and elected to face trial, but fled the country before the verdict could be delivered in November 2018.

On his personal blog — which is not accessible in Brunei — the 39-year-old detailed how he illegally crossed the border into Malaysia to avoid detection, and then flew to Vancouver, Canada where he sought asylum upon arriving at the airport.

The court’s verdict

In a 25-page judgment read in court on Thursday, Senior Magistrate Lailatul Zubaidah Hj Mohd Hussain acknowledged that sedition law had been largely untested in Brunei, with this being just the second sedition case to reach the courts, and the first to see a full-blown trial.

After reviewing the evidence, she believed the defendant had intent to “bring about hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection against His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan or the government”:

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the use of profanity directed towards the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the publicising of a baseless allegation against religious teachers on a social media platform about highly sensitive issues concerning religion, knowing full well or having ought to have known, that His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan is the head of religion in Brunei Darussalam, the comments as a whole did carry seditious intention.”

The magistrate said she found the defendant’s evidence to be contradictory — while he maintained that the post had no malintent, he told police he used the hashtag #Brunei to make the post go viral and was “stirred by the number of likes and shares”.

“The words [of the Facebook post] were deliberately couched in emotive vein in order to achieve the desired effect. I reject the defendant’s claim that the words ‘We must dissent #Brunei’ was merely a gaming reference and that he didn’t know what it meant.”

The senior magistrate added:

“Bearing in mind the limits placed on free speech and expression, I entertain no doubt that the posting has gone beyond what is sanctioned by law.”

“There is no constitutional right to freedom of expression in the Brunei Constitution. There is no room for political comment.”

There are some exceptions to the law, which states commentary is not considered “seditious” if the purpose is to show that the monarch or government has been misled or mistaken in any of their measures; to point out errors or defects in the government with a view to remedying such errors; or to highlight matters that give rise to ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population.

However the court did not see Shahiran’s Facebook post as reflecting these objectives, with the magistrate adding that citizens have a duty to be “socially-responsible” on social media:

“If [the defendant] was legitimately trying to show that the government had been misled or misinformed, he should have not used a social media platform to convey his disagreement with the Halal Licensing Guidelines… he could have just contacted the MoRA officer directly.”

“If the people do not agree with new laws and rules, there are better ways to address it than posting comments on Facebook social media and that is not the Brunei way.”

She said the post also “adversely affected the the standing or prominence of the national philosophy of Malay Islamic Monarchy”.

Sentencing in absentia

After the verdict was read, defence counsel Pg Khairul Nizam Pg Hj Mohd Yassin said his client had not provided instructions to appeal the conviction.

While the maximum penalty for publishing seditious comments is two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $5,000, Deputy Public Prosecutor Muhammad Qamarul Affyian Abdul Rahman said the prosecution would only seek a low custodial sentence or heavy fine.

However, Senior Magistrate Zubaidah said because the defendant had absconded from the legal process, she considered it an aggravating factor that warranted a sentence of 18 months.

“The court must send a message that such actions should not be followed,” she said.

This is only the second sedition case to reach the courts. The first sedition case was in 2006 when three local men were jailed for distributing a satirical video clip depicting members of the royal family.