HRW calls for charges against activists to be dropped

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KUALA LUMPUR: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on authorities in Malaysia to drop charges against eight activists and politicians who allegedly participated in “street protests” in Kuala Lumpur in February and March last year.

The street protests, noted Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, were “peaceful”.

He was commenting on the Federal Court hearing, on October 10, on the constitutional challenge on the ban on street protests.

“Malaysia’s blanket ban on street marches was legal overreach,” said Robertson in a statement. “It betrays paranoia about organized protests.”

However the Federal Court rules, he said, the government should return to the drawing board for a law that respects the right to peaceful assembly.

Peaceful marches and street protests are a legitimate way of expressing dissent, added the NGO Chief. “They should not be the basis for criminal charges.”

Robertson reiterated the Malaysian Government should immediately drop the charges against all the KitaLawan protesters. “It should also amend the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) to comply with international standards,” he stressed.

The right to peaceful assembly was not limited to static protests, he pointed out. “It also protects processions and other forms of ‘moving’ assemblies.”

HRW warned in its statement that the right to assemble peacefully was recognized under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. “By prohibiting all kinds of marches, the PAA imposes unlawful restrictions,” it said.

On September 9 last year, authorities in Malaysia filed charges against the eight activists and politicians for participating in what officials deemed “street protests.”

The charges came more than six months after thousands of people marched, dubbed KitaLawan protests, in support of jailed former parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The charges were filed under the PAA which imposes a blanket ban on participating in any “street protest”.

Such protests are defined as “an open air assembly that begins with a meeting at a specified place”.

It also includes “walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes”.

Besides prominent opposition party leaders, most of those charged were leaders or organizers of the peaceful Bersih 4.0 rally, held by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) in downtown Kuala Lumpur last year on August 29 and 30.

Demonstrators called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, and institutional reforms to end corruption in government.

A week later, the authorities charged Maria Chin Abdullah, the Bersih 2.0 chairperson; Mandeep Singh, the Bersih 2.0 manager; Sim Tze Tzin, an opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) MP and Fariz Musa, an activist, with participating in an unlawful street protest on March 28 last year.

Musa was also charged, together with Adam Adli, another activist, with participating in a street protest on February 28 last year.

Authorities also charged two PKR state assemblymen and the secretary to PKR vice president Tian Chua with participating in a street protest on March 21 last year.

All of those charged have challenged the constitutionality of the PAA’s ban on street protests.