KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - A lawyer for Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged with sedition on Tuesday for comments alleging that his client's controversial conviction on a sodomy charge was politically motivated.
The charge against N. Surendran, also an opposition parliamentarian and vice-president of Anwar's political party, was immediately denounced by rights groups as a further betrayal of the government's vow to scrap the tough sedition law.
Prime Minister Najib Razak made the pledge in 2012 as part of broader election promises to relax his now 57-year-old government's authoritarian ways. But his government continues to use the law regularly, typically against government critics who call it a campaign to stifle dissent.
Surendran pleaded not guilty.
The charge relates to comments he made in April criticising Anwar's conviction a month earlier for sodomy, Surendran's lawyer Latheefa Koya said.
Anwar was convicted in March of sodomising a young former male political aide and sentenced to five years in jail. He denies the charge and is free on appeal.
Anwar accuses the government of manipulating the courts in a long-term conspiracy to blacken his name and halt the growing momentum of the opposition alliance he leads.
"My lawyer has the right and the duty to speak of Najib's involvement in the... conspiracy to jail me," Anwar said in a statement.
Najib has previously admitted meeting with Anwar's sodomy accuser, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, shortly before the original charges were filed. But he denies orchestrating the sodomy charges.
Najib's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sodomy, even if consensual, is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Human Rights Watch criticised Surendran's sedition charge, which carries a maximum jail term of three years, as part of a "government campaign to systematically pursue its political opponents using trumped-up charges".
In a statement, the group's Asia deputy director Phil Robertson called Najib's promise to scrap the sedition law "hollow rhetoric" meant to deceive the public.
Najib's office maintains it plans to replace the sedition law but has given no timeframe.