A Malaysian law student has been sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty of sedition in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. Pro-democracy activists have widely condemned the decision, accusing the government of using a colonial-era law to stifle freedom of expression.
Student and activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim, 25, was in court for allegedly seditious public statements made in the period leading up to and following Malaysia’s general election last year.
The Associated Press reported that at one political meeting following the vote, which saw the country’s longtime ruling party returned to power, he told people to "go down to the streets to seize back our power."
Prosecutors claimed the statements were intended to incite the public to overthrow the government.
Adam Adli’s lawyers countered that the comments were an expression of genuine concern over public fears of electoral fraud.
Following the verdict Friday morning, the student tweeted the word “guilty,” and wrote that, “having a different opinion is apparently a crime now according to our dear prosecutor.”
Maria Chin Abdullah, chairperson of the Malaysian pro-democracy group Bersih, said Adam Adli’s conviction shows how the sedition act allows the government to criminalize any speech they find offensive.
“I think it is sending the message that freedom of expression can be criminalized without drawing the boundaries. If you look at the Sedition Act it is very broad. Anything that the government perceives as seditious falls under this act and there are no guidelines as to what is tantamount to sedition,” said Abdullah.
Seventeen Malaysians, including opposition politicians, activists and academics, are currently facing charges under the 1948 Sedition Act, and six others are being investigated.
Pro-democracy activists say the broad and vague definition in the law means all types of speech can be criminalized.
Earlier this month, for example, Susan Loone, a journalist for the Malaysiakini news Web site, was interrogated under the Sedition Act about a news article she wrote which contained an allegedly seditious comment in a quote.
Last year Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government planned to replace the colonial-era sedition law with laws that would support greater freedom of speech.
The attorney general announced on September 9 that all pending cases would be reviewed.
Abdullah said she has her doubts the government is sincere. Adam Adli is the second student activist after Muhammad Safwan Anang to be found guilty of sedition and sentenced to jail.
“Given the charge that was imposed on Adam Adli and also previously Safwan, who is also a student activist, I don't think there is any sincerity to open up the democratic space for expression,” said Abdullah.
Commenting on Friday’s ruling, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that Malaysia’s government is showing the “kind of authoritarian tendencies one usually associates with single-party rule rather than democracy.”
Malaysia’s ruling coalition has been in power since independence in 1957, making it one of the longest running governments in history. It narrowly won the May 2013 election.
Adam Adli was released on bail Friday. His lawyers have said they will appeal the conviction and sentence.