(New York) - Malaysian authorities should drop charges against eight activists and opposition politicians for participating in peaceful protests in Kuala Lumpur in February and March 2015, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 9, authorities filed charges under the Peaceful Assembly Act for their participation in so-called #KitaLawan protests on February 28, March 21, and March 28 in support of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The vague and overly broad prohibitions on public protest under the law violate the internationally protected right to peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Malaysian government seems determined to turn every peaceful protest into an occasion for throwing demonstrators into police lock-ups and charging them with a crime,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to stop their headlong rush toward an authoritarian state and drop the charges against all peaceful protesters.”   

Charges were filed under section 4(2)(c) of the Peaceful Assembly Act against Maria Chin Abdullah, Mandeep Singh, Adam Adli Adb Halim, Rozan Azan Mat Rasep, Fariz Musa, and politicians with the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR), including State Assemblyman Chang Lih Kang, State Assemblyman Lee Chean Chung, and Member of Parliament Sim Tze Tzin. The law prohibits “organiz[ing] or participat[ing] in a street protest” and carries a fine of up to 10,000 MR (US$2,300).

A ninth protestor, Fakhrulrazi Mokhtar, faces the much more serious charge of sedition for a speech he made at the February 21 rally.

Almost all of those charged are prominent leaders or organizers of the peaceful Bersih 4.0 rally held by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections on August 29 and 30 in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Key demands at Bersih 4.0 were the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak and institutional reform to end government corruption. The government openly opposed the rally, which Human Rights monitored and found was conducted peacefully.   

Abdullah, who is the chair of Bersih; Singh, a member of the coalition’s secretariat; and student activist Adli were among seven organizers of the Bersih rally called in for police questioning on September 2 for what the government alleged was “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and unlawful assembly. The authorities also called in opposition politician Tian Chua for questioning for possessing a “prohibited publication” – a t-shirt with the Bersih logo he wore during the recent rally – under section 8(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

“Charging protest organizers a full six months after a peaceful demonstration is a transparent attempt to retaliate against activists for the recent, huge Bersih rally,” Robertson said. “Prime Minister Najib and his government should engage in civil debate with their critics instead of showing fundamental disregard for the basic rights and liberties of Malaysians.”