Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Outrage over new peaceful assembly law

Malaysian opposition politicians, civil society activists and the legal fraternity expressed their outrage today over a proposed new law they say cracks down on the right to peaceful protest.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who is widely tipped to call a snap general election within months, quite unexpectedly announced in September his plan to scrap a range of decades-old draconian laws long criticised as oppressive and outdated.

But critics reacted angrily after the government tabled the Peaceful Assembly Bill in Parliament yesterday, saying that the new law would suffocate legitimate dissent, rather than boost civil liberties.

“This Bill has made meaningless the people’s right to freedom of assembly, in blatant breach of... the federal constitution,” PKR vice-president N Surendran said in a statement.

“It is clear that the real intention of Najib and his government is to make it as difficult and as burdensome as possible for the people to peacefully assemble.”

The reforms come as Najib, who faces a formidable political opposition, tries to boost his uncertain re-election hopes four months after police used teargas and water cannons to crush a street rally calling for electoral reforms.

Rally organiser Ambiga Sreenevasan said the new Bill “will only further stymie legitimate dissent in our country”.

Although the new Bill provides for gatherings without a police permit, it prohibits street protests and bars any gathering within a 50-metre zone around “prohibited areas” such as schools, hospitals and places of worship.

Organisers must also give 30 days' advanced notice before gatherings can proceed, and police can prevent these from taking place if they object to it.

Protesters are liable to fines of up to RM20,000 (US$6,300) for taking part in assemblies that violate the new law.

Bar: Bill needs to be reviewed

Bar council president Lim Chee Wee said the new Bill would be more restrictive than the present law and needed to be reviewed.

“The Bar is surprised that a ‘street protest’ is prohibited, as it is a form of assembly in motion, or procession, that is already legally recognised,” Lim said.

Last month, Najib introduced legislation to repeal two security laws and set free 125 people held under them.

This marked the first step in his avowed campaign to repeal or soften authoritarian laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial and has been used against opponents of the government.


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