[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysia has begun enforcing a law that allows authorities to bar citizens who insult the government from traveling overseas, the Star newspaper reported.
Under the law, Malaysians may be banned from going abroad for three years for discrediting or ridiculing the government, and immigration officials started applying the rule several months ago, the paper said, citing a person it didn't identify.
Sakib Kusmi, director general for the immigration department, confirmed the legal provisions to the paper. A spokesman for the authority didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has fired detractors including his deputy prime minister, and curbed dissent to maintain his grip on power as funding scandals led to the worst political crisis since he became premier seven years ago.
Opposition politicians and Mr Najib's leading critics are on a public campaign aimed at ousting him, as questions linger over US$681 million that appeared in his personal bank accounts before the last election in 2013.
The attorney-general ruled the funds were a donation from the Saudi royal family and Mr Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Opposition lawmakers and human rights groups have condemned a decision to prevent an activist from going abroad this month. Maria Chin Abdullah, chairwoman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, wasn't allowed to travel to South Korea on Sunday to receive an award, the group said in a Twitter post on May 15.
Bersih organized a major street demonstration against Mr Najib last year that drew an estimated 250,000 people as protesters demanded Mr Najib's resignation. More recently, she was part of a 'Save Malaysia' effort aimed at collecting signatures from ordinary voters in cities across Malaysia calling for the premier to step down.
Mr Najib has already made greater use of another anti-dissent measure, the country's Sedition Act, to detain media executives and political opponents. Under Malaysia's laws, the government doesn't have to explain why anyone is barred from leaving the country, the official news agency Bernama reported on Monday, citing Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed.
Ms Chin Abdullah can consult the immigration authority to find out the reason behind the ban, he was quoted as saying.
"The lack of such transparency and accountability only points to a government which is intent on abusing its powers to repress its critics and dissidents," Tony Pua, an opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party, said in a statement.
"The government's crude attempts to restrict our travel rights are outrageous abuse of power, which only serves to prove the critics allegations of Malaysia transforming itself to be police state."