Malaysia convicts student activist Adam Adli in sedition clampdown

A Malaysian court convicted a prominent student activist of sedition Friday and sentenced him to a year in prison in a ruling swiftly denounced by rights groups as part of a "sustained assault" by the government on free expression. -- PHOTO: THE STAR
A Malaysian court convicted a prominent student activist of sedition Friday and sentenced him to a year in prison in a ruling swiftly denounced by rights groups as part of a "sustained assault" by the government on free expression. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - A Malaysian court convicted a prominent student activist of sedition Friday and sentenced him to a year in prison in a ruling swiftly denounced by rights groups as part of a "sustained assault" by the government on free expression.

Adam Adli was charged with sedition in May 2013 after urging protests against election results that reaffirmed the longtime government's grip on power.

"Guilty," Adam tweeted Friday as the ruling was read out inside a Kuala Lumpur courtroom. "Having different opinion is apparently a crime now according to our dearest prosecutor."

The ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has sparked growing outrage over its use of the 1940s British colonial-era Sedition Act.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had promised in 2011 to repeal the law - calling it a relic of a "bygone era" - hoping to placate mounting public pressure for an end to authoritarian abuses.

But the law has been used repeatedly since last year's elections, accelerating in recent weeks with several government opponents charged for comments widely deemed by leaders in the legal community as innocuous.

More than a dozen people are known to have been charged with sedition since the May 2013 elections. Most of those cases are still pending.

Convictions, however, are relatively rare.

Adam was released pending an appeal.

"The government's Sedition Act onslaught against political activists is picking up steam with Adam Adli the latest victim of this sustained assault against freedom of expression in Malaysia," US-based Human Rights Watch said.

Its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called the Sedition Act "so vague that it can be used by the government to criminalise any sort of speech it deems offensive."

Najib's office said last month the Sedition Act would remain in use until replacement legislation can be drawn up, possibly by end-2015.

Umno, which represents the Muslim Malay ethnic majority, has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, bringing rapid development.

But it faces increasing discontent over corruption, racial policies widely criticised as divisive, and its use of the justice system and other organs of power to cripple opponents.

Umno's coalition lost the popular vote last year for the first time in decades but managed to retain control of parliament.

Rights groups and the opposition now accuse Najib of abandoning earlier reform promises in favour of a crackdown aimed at staving off a possible future regime change.

Najib's office has repeatedly denied that his reform plans are dead.

In March, a court convicted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a widely disputed charge of sodomy - which is illegal in Malaysia - controversially overturning an earlier acquittal.

Anwar calls the charge a blatant government attempt to decapitate the opposition. He faces an October 28 final ruling on his appeal against the conviction.

Anwar faces a five-year jail term that could end his political career.