People attend an anti-kleptocracy rally in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on October 14, 2017. 

© 2017 Lai Seng Sin / Reuters
(New York) – Proposed revisions to Malaysia’s law on peaceful assembly fall short of meeting international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should further revise the bill amending the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 before submitting it for a parliamentary vote.

On July 1, 2019, a government bill to amend the Peaceful Assembly Act received its first reading in Parliament. The bill would make some positive changes, eliminating language banning all protests in which participants march from one location to another. It would also reduce the required notice period from 10 to 7 days, though this still falls short of international standards that call for a maximum of 48 hours.

“While permitting street protests and shortening the notice period are steps in the right direction, the proposed revisions don’t address many fundamental problems with the law,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser. “The bill still discourages peaceful assembly rather than facilitates this basic right.”

No one should be criminally prosecuted for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly. Yet the proposed amendments fail to eliminate the various criminal penalties provided in the Peaceful Assembly Act. Moreover, the law still does not provide any exceptions to the notice requirement when it is impractical for the organizers to comply, as international standards require.

The bill should be revised to remove all criminal penalties for peaceful assembly. The law currently permits prosecution of those who organize an assembly without giving the required notice, non-citizens who organize or participate in an assembly, children who participate in an assembly, anyone who brings or permits a child to attend an assembly, anyone under 21 who organizes an assembly, and anyone who violates any restrictions or conditions imposed on the proposed assembly by the police.

While the proposed amendments would authorize the police to impose a non-criminal financial penalty rather than formally prosecuting a violator, exercise of that option would require the public prosecutor’s written consent. Giving prosecutors discretion means it would still be possible for peaceful protesters to be prosecuted.

The continued prohibition on participation by children violates children’s right to freedom of assembly – a right expressly recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia ratified in 1995. The prohibition on those under 21 from organizing assemblies would appear to contradict the government’s recent commitment to empower youth by reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. Similarly, the restriction on participation by non-citizens is contrary to international legal standards that make clear that non-citizens have a right to peacefully assemble.

Malaysia has made significant progress in its treatment of peaceful protests since the Bersih rallies calling for free and fair elections in 2011 and 2012, which were met with excessive and unnecessary force by the police.

“Malaysia’s current government came into office promising to abolish all draconian provisions of the Peaceful Assembly Act and earn global respect for the country’s human rights record,” Lakhdhir said. “To achieve this, the government needs to revise the assembly bill to remove all criminal penalties, allow spontaneous protests, and permit children and non-citizens to peacefully protest without fear of prosecution.”