A Malaysian protester wears a Bersih headband during a banned opposition rally in 2007. Bersih 2.0 is scheduled for July 9, 2011.

© 2007 Reuters

(Bangkok) - The Malaysian authorities should order the immediate release of 30 members of the opposition Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) who were pulled off their bus and arrested on the way to a political rally in Penang on June 25, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. They were charged with "waging war" against the king of Malaysia. 

The authorities are holding the 30 in remand for seven days while the police investigate the charge that the party was restarting the Communist Party of Malaysia, a long vanquished communist movement that signed a peace treaty with the government in 1989. The Penang police publicly presented as evidence against the activists a few shirts with photos of former Communist Party of Malaysia leaders and several leaflets promoting political change in the next election.

"Charging the political opposition with restarting a movement that died with the Cold War 20 years ago is more than a little absurd," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These arrests show the government's fundamental disregard for the democratic process and its willingness to go to great lengths to frighten Malaysians with political bogeymen from the distant past."  

The charge of "waging war" against the king, section 122 of the Penal Code, carries penalties of up to life in prison as well as fines.

General elections are not slated for Malaysia until 2013, but the government has tightened repression on all election-related activity. The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) 2.0, a civil society coalition urging electoral reforms, announced a major public march and assembly for July 9. The home affairs minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, responded that the government would not permit the march and the Minister of Information, Communication and Culture, Dr. Rais Yatim, called the event an "evil and unlawful rally."

Prime Minister Najib Razak accused Bersih 2.0 of trying to "wrest back political momentum" from the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), a charge that Bersih's steering committee immediately rejected.  

According to a media account, 81 opposition activists have been arrested since June 22. They include 28 Socialist Party members arrested in Johor on June 25, who were reportedly charged under the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Police also arrested a number of activists in various locales for selling or wearing yellow Bersih 2.0 shirts.

In November 2007, the first Bersih march and rally for clean and fair elections brought together approximately 60,000 participants.    

The Malaysian government's actions to deny the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly run counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the government's commitments to respect international human rights standards as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The government should heed the call of the governmental Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and permit the Bersih rally to proceed, as well as possible counter-marches to Bersih being planned by United Malays National Organization (UNMO) Youth and Perkasa, Human Rights Watch said.

"Rather than trying to silence peaceful critics, the Malaysian government should be working to ensure that election processes are fair and that they fully protect the civil and political rights of all Malaysians," Robertson said. "Arresting people for wearing t-shirts and distributing leaflets simply shows the depths of the government's intolerance of opposing viewpoints."