KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian opposition leader and lawyer Karpal Singh risks losing his seat as an MP after being found guilty of sedition and fined, amid concern that the ruling coalition is cracking down on dissent after losing more ground to the opposition in last year’s election.
The prosecution urged the judge in the Kuala Lumpur High Court to send the veteran politician to jail as a deterrent, but Judge Azman Abdullah, who had earlier rejected a Bar Council request to make a submission on Karpal’s behalf, opted for a $1,219 fine.
Karpal, who is chairman of the Democratic Action Party that is part of the opposition coalition, was convicted last month after commenting on the 2009 political crisis in the central state of Perak and the role of the rulers.
The sentence was “unduly harsh,” defence lawyer Gobind Singh Deo – who is Karpal’s son – told reporters after the hearing ended.
“You need to understand the context in which the comments were made. He [Karpal] was carrying out his duty as an MP and a lawyer,” he said.
The decision comes just four days after the Court of Appeal overturned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal on charges of sodomy, a crime in Malaysia. Anwar has appealed that decision and was among numerous opposition politicians, human-rights activists and international observers who packed the court on Tuesday morning.
The mood remains politically charged nearly a year after the general election left the ruling coalition with a smaller majority in parliament and less than half the popular vote.
A series of opposition-led mass rallies in the wake of the poll triggered a wave of arrests , while other people have been threatened or charged under the Sedition Act – a law the government vowed to repeal in July 2012. At least ten cases of sedition are under way against opposition politicians and civil society activists.
“The politically-motivated prosecutions of Karpal Singh and Anwar Ibrahim appear to be nothing more than cudgels wielded by the government to make up for losses at the polling booth,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
We defend the Constitution. They try to put us in jail. This court must stand up. Do not put Karpal Singh in jail. Do not disqualify him from for doing his duty as a member of parliament.
“These misguided cases show Prime Minister Najib Razak’s serious backpedalling on basic rights and the democratic process.”
The government insists that it remains committed to the repeal of the Sedition Act.
“Malaysia’s judiciary is independent, as the verdicts of many cases prove,” a government spokesman said in a response to questions submitted by Al Jazeera.
“The government remains committed to replacing the Sedition Act. Until new legislation is in place, existing cases must be tried under existing laws.”
The Sedition Act was passed by the British colonial authorities in 1948, as the returning administration sought to quell any opposition to their rule and battled Communist rebels emboldened by their successes during the Second World War. It criminalises a broad range of speech as well as books, papers and publications deemed to have a “seditious tendency”.
Karpal’s lawyers will appeal the fine, in the hope of reducing it to a level where the politician will be able to keep his seat in parliament.
Under Malaysia’s Constitution, an MP is disqualified if jailed for more than a year or fined more than $610.
In mitigation, after the deputy public prosecutor’s demand for a deterrent jail sentence triggered cries of “cruelty” from the public gallery, the defence lawyer intervened to argue passionately that his client was a renowned constitutional lawyer who had been giving his legal opinion on a constitutional matter, as a “national figure” and “towering Malaysian”.
“Who’s going to defend the Constitution if the Attorney General’s Chambers doesn’t stand up,” Gobind asked. “We defend the Constitution. They try to put us in jail. This court must stand up. Do not put Karpal Singh in jail. Do not disqualify him from for doing his duty as a member of parliament.”
Lawyers note the law on Sedition is extremely broad, making it easy for people to be charged. They add that there are very few defences against the law, if charged.
“The Bar has consistently, for many decades, been against the Sedition Act,” Bar Council President Christopher Leong told reporters at the end of the hearing, noting that the case was of concern to the legal profession.
On Sunday, the lawyer’s body in a strongly worded statement criticised Anwar’s conviction for sodomy as, “persecution not prosecution.”
As well as Karpal and Anwar, dozens of activists and opposition politicians are facing court proceedings. As well as the Sedition Act, cases have been brought under the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Film Censorship Act.
“During the Najib administration, the Sedition Act has been used several times more than before,” said Eric Paulsen, co-founder and adviser of Lawyers for Liberty, which is acting in some of the cases.
“I would assume why it’s used more is because Najib has abolished the Internal Security Act. The ISA was a catch-all so if you need something that is similarly vague, the Sedition Act is the next best thing.”
Paulsen described the offence of Sedition as “antiquated and antidemocratic”.
Mahathir Mohamad, who was Malaysia’s prime minister for more than two decades until 2003, was notorious for his intolerance of dissent.
Opposition politicians and critics were sometimes jailed under the ISA, which allowed for detention without trial. On Mahathir’s retirement, his successors promised a “kinder” government with Najib promising, as he repealed the ISA in 2011, that no-one would be arrested, “merely on the point of political ideology”.
A year later, Najib indicated that a National Harmony Act would replace the Sedition Act.