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Malaysia opposition leader on trial for sedition

A Malaysian opposition leader went on trial Wednesday on charges of sedition for allegedly insulting a royal figure, a case slammed by critics as a government witch hunt aimed at intimidating a resurgent opposition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Malaysian opposition leader went on trial Wednesday on charges of sedition for allegedly insulting a royal figure, a case slammed by critics as a government witch hunt aimed at intimidating a resurgent opposition.

The charges stem from a Feb. 6 news conference in which Karpal Singh said that political decisions taken by Sultan Azlan Shah, the titular head of northern Perak state, can be questioned in court. The statement came amid a power struggle for control of the state government.

According to Malaysian law, any act that provokes hatred, contempt or disaffection against a state ruler is considered sedition, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

Singh, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, a Parliament member and a prominent lawyer, has pleaded innocent.

"These sedition charges against Karpal are utterly baseless," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Right Watch. "This is just an excuse to remove a powerful political opponent."

Perak used to be governed by a three-party alliance that includes the Democratic Action Party. But earlier this year, three of its Perak state legislators defected, tipping the balance in favor of the ruling National Front coalition.

The sultan then fired the opposition alliance's administration and asked the National Front to lead the state. Prosecutors said Singh insulted the sultan and committed sedition by questioning the sultan's mandate to appoint a new administration.

Prosecutors called a reporter for the pro-government Utusan Malaysia newspaper who was at the news conference as its first witness Wednesday.

Singh insisted Wednesday that he had only been voicing his legal opinion.

"I can't see anything there which is seditious," he told reporters. "In any event, sedition is an outdated piece of legislation. Of course I'm confident I've done nothing wrong."

Government lawyer Kamaludin Said denied the charge was politically motivated. He said the prosecution plans to call up to 20 witnesses, mainly journalists who attended Singh's news conference in February.

Human Rights Watch said that the National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence, relies on the Sedition Act as well as the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial, "to repress free expression and assembly to silence and punish its critics."

The government says such laws are needed in multiethnic Malaysia to maintain communal harmony.

Pearson dismissed the argument as a fallacy.

"Malaysians have time and again proven themselves capable of exercising the basic democratic rights to which they are entitled. It's time their government listened," she said.