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Peaceful assembly

November 29, 2011

Hundreds of Malaysian lawyers, activists and opposition lawmakers have taken to the streets to protest against a proposed law they say stifles free speech.

Malaysian lawyers hold placards as they shout slogans during a protest in Kuala Lumpur
Over 500 lawyers marched to Parliament in a rare protestImage: dapd

Expected to be passed on Tuesday, the Peaceful Assembly Bill will require any public gathering in a designated area, such as a stadium, to be authorized at least 24 hours in advance. Other meetings will need 10 days' prior approval.

Children under the age of 15 and non-citizens will be barred from rallies under the new law. And rallies will not be allowed to be held near schools, hospitals, places of worship, airports or gasoline stations.

Violators of the new law could be fined up to 20,000 ringgit (6,670 US dollars).

On Tuesday, more than 500 lawyers representing Malaysia’s Bar Council and rights activists marched to Parliament shouting "Freedom to assemble" and "Freedom to the people," but most were stopped by police from entering the complex. Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee said the ban on street demonstrations was "outrageous."

Pre-election maneuvers

Prime Minister Najib Razak
Prime Minister Najib Razak insists the new bill protects the right to peaceful assemblyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Prominent activist and blogger Hishamuddin Rais told Deutsche Welle he believed the new regulations were a government maneuver to prevent protests ahead of early elections that are widely expected to be held next year.

In July, hundreds of protesters were arrested and tear gas was fired when over 20,000 people marched in the capital Kuala Lumpur to demand greater electoral transparency. The protest was spearheaded by Bersih 2.0, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a citizen’s movement that is supported by three major opposition parties.

Wong Chin Huat from Bersih said this week that the government had to reject the peaceful assembly bill as it infringed on the rights of the people and violated the constitution. "If they don’t change the law, they will pay the price when voters abandon the government in the next general elections."

Amnesty International said it was "a legislative attack on Malaysians' right to peaceful protest" and Human Rights Watch urged the government to form a select committee to review the law before it is passed.

'Worse than Zimbabwe or Myanmar'

Police deploy water cannons
Water cannons and tear gas are frequently deployed by policeImage: AP

Even though opposition MPs said they would boycott the vote, the bill was expected to pass easily because Najib Razak's ruling coalition has a nearly two-thirds majority in parliament.

The prime minister has defended the bill and insisted it guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. He says public marches are being prohibited to avoid disruptions to general society.

The new law is part of his campaign to replace tough laws on security, speech and assembly that he termed as "draconian" in a bid to garner support.

But critics say the new restrictions are equally "draconian." Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters on Tuesday that the law would be worse than those of Zimbabwe or Myanmar.

Repealing the Internal Security Act

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gestures as he leaves a courthouse in Kuala Lumpur
Anwar Ibrahim says the new legislation would be even 'more draconian'Image: AP

Activists are also demanding that the Malaysian government repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) as Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged. However, this does not seem likely any time soon. Earlier this month, the police announced they had detained 13 suspected militants on Borneo under the law, which allows detention without trial. The government defended the move, saying the detentions were necessary to protect the country's security.

"The ISA should be repealed," Malaysian human rights lawyer Haris Ibrahim told Deutsche Welle, adding that he believed the government was willing to protect human rights. He said it had said it would repeal the law but replace it with two others.

"According to the government, one of the bills would be similar to the Patriot Act in the United States," Hishamuddin Rais told Deutsche Welle. "But we have no idea about the other act."

Author: Ayu Purwaningsih
Editor: Anne Thomas