Former Malaysian lawmaker awaits hero's welcome on release from jail

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 22 (AFP) - Former opposition lawmaker Lim Guan Eng is expected to get a hero's welcome when he walks out of prison on Wednesday after serving an 18-month sentence for sedition and publishing false news.

Lim, deputy secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), was convicted on both charges in April last year and subsequently lost his seat as a member of parliament, which he had held since 1986.

The 38-year-old son of DAP leader Lim Kit Siang was found guilty of publishing false news about an alleged sex scandal involving a 15-year-old girl and Rahim Thamby Chik, who was then chief minister of the state of Malacca.

Lim was also ordered to serve a concurrent 18-month sentence for sedition after speaking out about the government's handling of allegations that Rahim had raped a minor. 

Rahim, a member of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling United Malay's National Organisation (UMNO), was later acquitted of the charges.

At the time, Amnesty International warned that Lim's conviction would "have the wider effect of curbing free speech in Malaysia."

P. Ramakrishnan, the president of local human rights group Aliran, said Lim would "rejoin Malaysian society not as a common convicted criminal but as a Malaysian hero -- his stature enhanced and his integrity intact.

"No matter what officialdom may claim, he will be perceived as someone who was treated unjustly by a system that no longer commands the confidence nor the respect of most Malaysians," he told AFP.

Ramakrishnan said the episode had taken on added importance with the arrest of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in September last year and his sentencing to six years in jail for abuse of power in April. 

Anwar is now on trial on a separate charge of sodomy and could face an additional 20 years in jail.

"All is not too well in our society," Ramakrishnan said. "Guan Eng is well placed to play his role even more positively now that the ground is simmering for change.

"Grateful Malaysians not only salute him for his valour but are ready to be part of the movement that is gathering momentum, irresistibly and irrevocably." 

Chandra Muzaffar, the vice-president of a new opposition party headed by Anwar's wife, said August 25 "will go down in Malaysian history as one of the important milestones in our struggle for justice and freedom."

"In a real sense you are coming back to a different Malaysia," he wrote in a letter published in the Islamic opposition newspaper Harakah earlier this month.

"The last 10 months have witnessed an unprecedented political awakening within a significant segment of society. People from all walks of life have become much more conscious of the abuse of power on the part of the ruling elite."

As an ethnic Chinese politician championing the rights of a young Malay girl, Lim "crossed an ethnic divide as few other leaders have," he said, urging him to work towards bridging the racial gaps between Malaysia's opposition parties.

Malaysia's ethnic Chinese, accounting for almost a third of the country's population of 22 million, "have to be persuaded that our movement for change is committed to justice for all," the wheelchair-bound former university professor said.

"We have to convince them that the political change we envisage will enhance rather than demolish their rights and dignity," he said. "You are in a position to convey this message to the Chinese community in particular."

Many political analysts believe the ethnic Chinese vote might be crucial in general elections that could be called any time between now and next June.

While the Islamic opposition party has recently attracted increased support from members of the ethnic Malay majority who are disenchanted with Mahathir, the swing among Chinese voters appears to be lukewarm at best.

The DAP, a multiracial but mainly Chinese party, has also suffered from internal squabbling although it continues to be the leading opposition force in parliament.