(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should impartially investigate alleged excessive use of force by police to disperse tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Kuala Lumpur calling for election reform, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch observed police using teargas and water cannons against peaceful participants on April 28, 2012, at a mass rally held by Bersih (“clean”), the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, after a small group attempted to breach a police barricade.
Police subsequently arrested at least 471 people, and dozens were injured by beatings or in confrontations with the police. The police on April 29 announced that all arrested have been released, but warned that some demonstrators could be charged in the near future.
“The use of water cannons and teargas against peaceful protesters shows the Malaysian police were out of control, not the demonstrators,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop patting itself on the back and promptly investigate why unnecessary force was used and punish those responsible.”
In the early afternoon of April 28, tens of thousands of Bersih supporters, many dressed in canary yellow T-shirts, marched towards Kuala Lumpur’s national landmark Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). Because the authorities had obtained a court order barring Bersih from gathering at Dataran Merdeka, rally participants marched to the edges of the barricaded square for a planned sit-in at 2 p.m.
Around 2:30 p.m., Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenevasan and parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced the rally had succeeded in its goals and called on the crowd to disperse. Some participants slowly began to depart, but many did not. Around 3 p.m., a small group breached the barricade to Dataran Merdeka. Police responded by firing dozens of teargas rounds not only at those who crossed the police line, but also at the peaceful crowds who were nowhere near the barricaded square. Human Rights Watch observed the police using teargas and water cannons against demonstrators who were running away and groups of people far from the square; this continued until about 7 p.m. The police set up roadblocks and shut down train services in the vicinity, making it difficult for people to leave expeditiously.
A Bersih participant, Lau Ming, 25, told Human Rights Watch in Kuala Lumpur that: “I was very happy today. We were marching peacefully together and then the police used tear gas to intimidate us. We had not done anything wrong.”
The Malaysian government quickly issued a statement that the police had acted properly and that the protest was without major incident. Minister of Home Affairs Hishamuddeen Hussain “commend[ed] the police for their professionalism and the restraint they have shown under difficult circumstances” and said a “group of protesters tried to provoke a violent confrontation with the police.”
“Instead of trying to close the book on the protest, the government should launch an impartial and transparent inquiry into the actions of the police,” Robertson said. “Whether the government likes it or not, there will be future demonstrations and the police will need to do a better job to ensure security and respect people’s rights.”
Some people engaged in violence against the police later in the afternoon and they should be appropriately fined or prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. These included protesters who overturned a police car after it allegedly hit two demonstrators and others who threw water bottles or other objects at the police.
On April 23, five days prior to the Bersih rally, the Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 went into effect, allowing the police wide discretion to set the terms under which groups of people can assemble in public. City officials rejected Bersih’s request to use Dataran Merdeka for their rally, citing safety concerns and stating the square could only be used for what authorities consider national events. The city suggested alternatives, but Bersih maintained Dataran Merdeka is a public square for the use of the people. Bersih also rejected alternatives because they stated it was too late to change preparations for the large crowd expected and because the Dataran Merdeka site was more accessible.
On April 27 the police obtained a magistrate’s order barring Bersih from the square and the adjoining streets. The public was warned “not to turn up, attend or take part in any gathering from April 28, 2012 to May 1, 2012.” Prior to April 28, the police also refused Bersih’s request for assistance in crowd management during the rally.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Force may be used “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.” When the lawful use of force is unavoidable, “law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved and minimize damage and injury.” In the dispersal of unlawful but nonviolent assemblies, “law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.”
In July 2011, police used teargas and water cannons to break up a Bersih mass rally and arrested more than 1,600 people. Following national and international condemnation of the crackdown, Prime Minister Najib Razak set up a bipartisan parliamentary panel, which suggested several changes to the election system. Bersih leaders criticized those changes as inadequate to ensure that the next national elections, expected within a few months, are fair. Bersih has called for the current membership of the Election Commission to resign, for voting rolls to be purged of fraudulent names, and the election to be monitored by international observers.
“The authorities’ use of the new Peaceful Assembly Law to try to prevent, rather than facilitate, the Bersih rally raises serious concerns about the government’s reform efforts more generally,” Robertson said. “The government needs to show that it’s serious about political reform.”