Malaysian activist Hishamuddin Rais escapes prison sentence for sedition
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Malaysian activist Hishamuddin Rais escapes prison sentence for sedition

PROPONENTS of freedom of speech and the abolition of the Sedition Act are celebrating the successful appeal of veteran social activist Hishamuddin Rais today against a nine month prison sentence for sedition.

Last year, the 65-year-old Hishamuddin was found guilty by a Sessions Court and fined RM5,000 (US$1,240), but later had his sentence increased to nine months in prison, as well as a RM1,000 (US$248) fine, by a High Court in January this year after prosecution appealed for a heavier sentence.

Following the controversial 2013 general election, Hishamuddin – along with politicians Tian Chua, Tamrin Ghafar and activists Adam Adli Abdul Halim, Haris Ibrahim and Muhammad Safwan Anang – was charged with sedition for the speech he made at a forum on May 13 three years ago.

The group was accused of inciting the public to overthrow the government through street protests after ruling coalition Barisan Nasional won the election, even though the popularity vote was won by the opposition.

In the Court of Appeal, Hishamuddin was represented by Ambiga Sreenevasan, Syahredzan Johan, and Melissa Sasidaran, who presented his case to a three-member panel of judges.

It was argued that his words, “Tipu pilihan raya, turun jalan raya” (loosely translated as “In the elections you cheat, then we head down to the streets”), urging Malaysians to demonstrate in the streets in protest against the election results, “contained no incitement to unlawful acts, as calling for a demonstration is not illegal.”

In Malaysia, under the Peaceful Assembly Act, peaceful demonstrations are allowed be held, although prior permission from the police is required.

Ambiga added that there was no mention of overthrowing the government, while Syahredzan said that a fine was sufficient enough a punishment, as “no violent riot, no chaos, no damage of properties were caused by the speech.”

While the court ruled that the sedition conviction would still be upheld, the prison sentence was rescinded and the RM5,000 fine reinstated.

The hashtags #IshamRais and #MansuhAktaHasutan (#AbolishSeditionAct) have been trending on Twitter, as netizens closely followed reports of the court proceedings posted by those present at court to show their support.

While the overall mood after the ruling was announced has been a celebratory one, there were many who shared their dissatisfaction with the fact that the Sedition Act could still be used against critics of the government.

But for most, they are pleased that Hishamuddin can continue to push for his cause outside of a jail cell.