(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should withdraw charges against opposition leaders for their participation in the “Bersih 3.0” demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2012. A criminal charge sheet obtained by Malaysian media indicates that authorities will charge former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR); Azmin Ali, PKR deputy president; and Badrul Hisham Shaharin, a PKR activist, with disobeying judicial orders and taking part in a prohibited street protest.
The Bersih movement, a coalition of some 150 organizations promoting reform of election laws and procedures, held a mass rally on April 28 at Dataran Merkeda (Independence Square). Days earlier, the authorities had obtained a judicial order to stop the protest, but Bersih proceeded with a demonstration in the area surrounding the square. The protest proceeded mostly without incident but ended with police using excessive force, including teargas and water cannons, and beating and arresting over 500 protesters.
“The Malaysian authorities appear to be using what happened at the Bersih demonstration as a pretext to prosecute political opposition leaders,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges, and the actions by police at the Bersih rally, don’t inspire confidence that the Malaysian government is committed to protecting basic free expression rights.”
The PKR leaders are being charged under Malaysia’s new Peaceful Assembly Act, which went into effect mere days before the protest. The Malaysian parliament enacted the law in late 2011 as part of a billed legislative “reform” package, revoking an earlier law that prohibited all protests without permits and had been used to outlaw virtually all political protests.
The Peaceful Assembly Act bans so-called street protests and contains an overly broad list of areas in which all assemblies are banned – a list that makes it virtually impossible for protesters to hold demonstrations in urban areas, Human Rights Watch said. Anwar, Azmin, and Badrul are specifically charged under the act for engaging in a “street protest.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to rewrite the Peaceful Assembly Act so that it conforms with international human rights standards.
“The best way to reform the Peaceful Assembly Act is to repeal it and draft a new law,” Robertson said. “The government needs to go back to the drawing board.”
Anwar gave a speech at the April 28 demonstration, but was not considered one of its organizers. He has twice been tried by the Malaysian government on charges of sodomy – cases widely considered to be politically motivated and aimed at keeping him from leading the political opposition. Anyone convicted under Malaysia’s criminal code becomes ineligible to be elected to parliament.
The Malaysian Bar Council, which deployed 78 observers during the protests, criticized police for excessive use of force during the rally. It issued a detailed report in early May documenting abuses by the police, including beatings, overuse and misuse of teargas, and deliberate efforts by police to prevent journalists from observing or filming their actions. Several senior government officials dismissed the findings of the Bar Council as “biased.”
In the wake of allegations about police misconduct during the protest, the government announced a panel to investigate the protests. The panel’s head, Hanif Omar, a former police inspector general, was quoted in various media reports stating that the Bersih assembly had been organized by “pro-communist people” involved in anti-government demonstrations in the 1970s.
Because of concerns about the panel’s objectivity, the Bersih coalition has refused to cooperate in the investigation. Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, recently announced it will hold a separate inquiry.
“The statements by the government panel’s leadership raise concerns about its ability to impartially investigate the Bersih 3.0 protests,” Robertson said.
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The original version of the news release “Drop Charges Against Protest Participants” released on May 22, 2012, incorrectly provided the estimate of the number of persons arrested at the April 28, 2012 “Bersih 3.0” rally as “as many as 1,700.” The correct number is over 500. The 1,700 figure was an estimate of the number of persons arrested at the “Bersih 2.0” rally in July 2011