Malaysia pressured to scrap law against rallies

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2011 12:03 AM
Malaysia pressured to scrap law against rallies

Malaysia's government faced mounting pressure Sunday to scrap plans for a law that would ban street protests, despite agreeing to ease other restrictions on rallies that activists have called repressive.

The proposed law to regulate public demonstrations has prompted lawyers, opposition leaders and rights groups to accuse Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front coalition of cracking down on freedom of assembly ahead of general elections widely expected next year.

Details of the Peaceful Assembly Bill announced last week included a requirement for rally organizers to inform police about their plans 30 days in advance. Street demonstrations would be forbidden, effectively limiting rallies to stadiums and public halls.

Malaysia's de facto law minister, Nazri Aziz, said Saturday that the Cabinet has agreed to make several changes to the proposed law, such as reducing the advance notification period to 10 days.

However, there were no changes planned for the ban on street protests and a fine of up to 20,000 ringgit ($6,200) for demonstrators who break the law. Children under 15 would be barred from attending rallies, which also cannot be held near schools, hospitals, places of worship, airports or gasoline stations.

"In exercising their right to assemble, the rights of others must also be respected," Nazri was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

The Bar Council, Malaysia's main lawyers group, said it would proceed with a march to Parliament to protest the proposed law on Tuesday, when federal legislators are scheduled to debate and possibly vote on it.

"It is not a piece of legislation which we, as lawyers, can watch enter our statute books without standing up against it," Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee said Sunday.

Other nongovernment groups were also planning smaller demonstrations against the plan.

Criticism about the government's stance against street rallies surged in July when police arrested hundreds of protesters and fired tear gas at more than 20,000 people who marched in Kuala Lumpur to demand greater electoral transparency.

Najib has insisted such rallies undermine public order, but he has worked to counter criticism by making numerous announcements in the past three months about plans to abolish other decades-old security laws regarded as Draconian, including ones that allow detention without trial.

However, the opposition believes the announcements are merely a ploy to bolster Najib's popularity ahead of elections and that the security laws will likely be replaced with others that still enable the government to prosecute its rivals and exert control over the mainstream media.