Local human rights groups hailed Tuesday’s acquittal by a Malaysian court of a former student activist on sedition charges as a victory for free speech, in the first decision since the rules for such cases changed last month.
The acquittal of Muhammad Safwan Anang came barely a month after the country’s Court of Appeal ruled that the prosecution must prove intent when filing charges in sedition cases. Prior to that, prosecutors had only to prove that an offending statement was made.
On Tuesday, a three-judge Court of Appeal panel ruled that a statement made by Safwan in 2013, when he called for the public to remove Malaysia’s government from office through street protests, was not seditious speech.
Judges Prasad Sandosham Abraham, Mohtarudin Baki and Zakaria Sam, agreed unanimously that the prosecution had failed to prove the case against the 26-year-old former Universiti Malaya student.
“The court must scrutinize and independently evaluate the statement to see whether the language used comes within the bounds of sedition or free speech.
“Failure to do so by the court, in our view, is a serious misdirection in law which renders the conviction unsafe,” Prasad said in delivering the verdict that overturned previous rulings.
On Sept. 5, 2014, Safwan was sentenced to 10 months in jail and fined 5,000 ringgit (U.S. $1,115) after the Sessions Court found him guilty over the speech delivered during a forum on May 13, 2013.
Safwan spoke soon after Malaysia’s 13th general election, uttering the words “we cannot trust a government which wins by misappropriation.”
Four other activists charged under the same act at the same forum are awaiting appeals and a fifth activist is still waiting for his trial to start.
Previously, Safwan, a former chairman of student group Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, appealed his conviction to the High Court and succeeded in having his sentence reduced to only the 5,000 ringgit fine. The prosecution appealed, seeking a heavier sentence.
Ruling on sedition
On Nov. 25, the Court of Appeal ruled that Section 3(3) of the Sedition Act, which allows for conviction once it is proved that the defendant made a seditious statement, was unconstitutional. The court ruled that intent must be proved in such cases.
Following the ruling, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said the government would appeal.
Asked about Safwan’s acquittal, Apandi told BenarNews on Tuesday, “Sorry, I am on a vacation right now and not in the country.”
The Sedition Act, enacted by British colonial rulers in 1948 to combat communists, was amended by the Malaysian government following race riots in 1969. The law defines “sedition” broadly and places limits on free speech, particularly over sensitive political issues, according to a report by Center of Independent Journalism Malaysia.
‘A welcome break’
Human rights groups have criticized the Malaysian government for using the Sedition Act to go after and silence critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who have called for him to resign over a financial scandal linked to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Safwan hailed his acquittal as a “positive signal to the people’s freedom of speech” and said citizens had every right to criticize the government over alleged misconduct.
“My criticism in the speech was against the weaknesses found in the last general election’s system, as well as the abuse of government machinery to campaign for the elections. I also called for the Election Commission to act more fairly.
“This verdict gives us the strength to continue campaigning to drop every charge under the Sedition Act, as they are clearly driven by selective prosecution. We should also continue fighting for the abolishment of the Sedition Act itself,” he told BenarNews.
Eric Paulsen, executive director for local NGO Lawyers for Liberty, who was in court as a spectator, called the acquittal an excellent verdict, but cautioned that it “does not mean the fight against the archaic and irrelevant act was over.”
Amnesty International Malaysia Executive Director Shamini Darshni lauded the acquittal as “a step in the right direction” and said Safwan should never have been charged.
“The decision of the Court of Appeal is a welcome break from the worrying trend of the Malaysian authorities to criminalize the work of activists, by subjecting them to arrests, detention and imprisonment,” Shamini said.