By Siva Sithraputhran and Stuart Grudgings
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian police arrested three opposition politicians and activists on Thursday and charged another with sedition, launching a crackdown on dissent three weeks after an election exposed deep divisions in the country and sparked a series of opposition protest rallies.
The arrests and the charging of a student activist under the country's Sedition Act signal a hardening stance by the government after the May 5 poll, which it won in unconvincing style that has highlighted electoral system problems.
Police also raided the offices of three opposition newspapers and seized hundreds of copies of their publications for suspected infringement of regulations, the interior ministry said in a statement.
The long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost the popular vote for the first time in 44 years in its worst election result, but still won 60 percent of parliamentary seats thanks to a election system that gives heavy weight to its rural strongholds.
The opposition, led by charismatic former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, is refusing to recognize the result and alleges the BN also benefited from widespread fraud.
Anwar has staged a series of rallies around the Southeast Asian country to protest against the result and some opposition activists have called for mass street protests, testing the patience of Prime Minister Najib Razak's government.
Conservatives in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the ruling coalition, have urged Najib, who faces a possible leadership battle within months, to take a firm line against "dissent".
"The recent arrests are a matter for the police, who are acting to uphold the law," a government spokesman said. "The detentions came after the police received numerous reports against the defendants by members of the public."
SEDITION LAW USED
Opposition member of parliament Tian Chua, who is vice president of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), and pro-opposition activists Haris Ibrahim and Tamrin Ghafar, were arrested for offences under the Sedition Act, Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohamed Salleh told Reuters.
He would not say if there would be further arrests.
Tian Chua said on his Twitter page that he had been picked up by police as he was about to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur's budget air terminal.
Earlier, 24-year-old activist Adam Adli was charged under the Sedition Act, which human rights group Amnesty International said this week should be abolished as it posed a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.
Adli was charged for a speech he made at a forum on May 13. Tian Chua and Haris had also attended that forum, online media sites reported.
Adli, who could be imprisoned for up to three years if found guilty, was reported as saying at the forum that people should not wait for another election to "overthrow" the government.
His lawyer, N. Surendran, told Reuters that his client had pleaded not guilty because his statements had not been seditious and that the charges were unconstitutional.
Under the Sedition Act, which has been implemented over the years to repress political dissent, it is a criminal offence to make statements with "seditious tendency".
Najib has repealed and revised several colonial-era security laws in response to growing demands from the country's middle class for more freedoms, but has left the Sedition Act on the books despite pledging last year to abolish it.
(Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel)