Demonstrators run away from tear gas during a protest against the Internal Security Act in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - Malaysian authorities should immediately drop charges against 30 peaceful demonstrators arrested at a rally on August 1, 2009, calling for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, Human Rights Watch said today. Police responded to the 20,000-person march in Kuala Lumpur with indiscriminate and excessive force, Human Rights Watch said, including beatings, tear gas, and chemically laced water shot from water cannon trucks.

"Prime Minister Najib took office promising to uphold civil liberties, and then his government turns right around and brutally attacks peaceful demonstrators," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "All charges should be dropped immediately."

Security forces arrested nearly 600 people, including 40 minors, making random arrests all over the city, some even before the rally against the Internal Security Act (ISA) began. The ISA permits indefinite detention without charge or trial. Malaysia's Police Act requires a permit for gatherings of four or more people, though such permission is routinely withheld from groups organizing anti-government protests.

The earliest arrest recorded was at 3:40 a.m. on August 1, almost 10 hours ahead of the scheduled demonstration. Security forces blocked roads and train stations, stopping and searching passengers, and arrested those suspected of planning to participate. Police targeted for arrest people wearing red or black (the protest colors) or sporting paraphernalia like headbands, T-shirts, and badges promoting the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI or Anti-Internal Security Act Movement) and opposition parties.

Participants gathered at three locations: the Masjid Jamek and Masjid Negara mosques, and at Sogo Shopping Center. Police used tear gas and water cannon trucks to disperse the growing crowds at all three locations. Photos show security forces attacking an opposition parliamentarian, Hatta Ramli, dragging him to the ground as he tried to address a crowd of 2,000 gathered in front of a mosque. Around 2 p.m., some of the marchers left the rallying points and attempted to make their way to the Royal Palace. They were met by lines of riot police, who dispersed the crowd using tear gas and chemically laced water.

Police also targeted prominent opposition politicians and leaders of the anti-ISA movement, including Norliala Othman, wife of an ISA detainee now in his eighth year of incarceration, charging them with illegal assembly. Other participants were charged under the Societies Act.

"It's despicable that wearing a T-shirt can get you arrested in Malaysia," said Pearson. "Security forces are violating the rights of Malaysians to free expression and peaceful assembly."

The day after his inauguration, on April 3, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak expressed his "intention to uphold civil liberties" and "regard for the fundamental rights of the people of Malaysia." His response to the August 1 rally was much less supportive of basic rights. Najib told the media: "We can provide them [the demonstrators] stadiums where they can shout themselves hoarse till dawn, but don't cause disturbance in the streets."

"If Prime Minister Najib can recognize Malaysians have a right to free speech, why not allow them to express themselves peacefully on the streets," Pearson said.

Human Rights Watch renewed its call for the repeal of the Internal Security Act and called for provisions unfairly limiting freedom of assembly to be dropped from the Police Act. Najib has announced that the ISA law will be reviewed. But members of his administration, such as Nazri Aziz, the cabinet minister in charge of legal affairs, have made it clear that review does not mean repeal, saying that as long as the ruling National Front coalition "is leading the government, the ISA will not be abolished."

"If the government thinks Malaysians will quietly accede to a superficial review of the ISA, they should think again," said Pearson. "The thousands who came out to protest showed that Malaysians are prepared to stand up for their rights."