KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A Malaysian court sentenced a student democracy activist to a year in jail on Friday after finding him guilty of sedition, drawing immediate condemnation from human rights groups who accuse the government of using the colonial-era law to stifle freedom of expression.
Adam Adli was charged last year after making several statements at a political meeting following national elections, including one in which he urged people "go down to the streets to seize back our power."
"Guilty," Adam tweeted from the court room. "Having a different opinion is apparently a crime now according to our dearest prosecutor."
Adam was freed on bail pending appeal to a higher court.
At least 14 people including opposition lawmakers, academics and a journalist have been charged under the Sedition Act since last year, mostly for criticizing the government or ruling officials. Those found guilty face up to three years in prison and a fine. Sedition as defined by Malaysian law includes promoting hatred against the government.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Malaysia's ruling party, which has been in power in coalition with other parties since 1957, was "showing the kind of authoritarian tendencies one usually associates with single-party rule rather than democracy."
"More than anything, this conviction shows the incredible danger posed by the Sedition Act, which is so vague that it can be used by the government to criminalize any sort of speech it deems offensive," said its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
Government officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Prime Minister Najib Razak last year said the government planned to eventually abolish the Sedition Act, which was introduced in 1949 during British colonial rule, and replace it with new laws that would strike a better balance between allowing freedom of speech and ensuring public stability.
But he has appeared to have backtracked after his ruling coalition's poor performance in general elections in May last year. Najib's coalition won the polls but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance headed by Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime thorn in the side of the ruling party.
Human Rights Watch said the Malaysian government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instil fear and silence in its opponents.
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