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Police arrest protesters for denouncing anniversary of repressive law

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) condemns the police arrest of 38 people in Selangor, Penang and Kelantan, who were participating in nationwide candlelight vigils held to denounce the 50th year of the Internal Security Act (ISA) on 1 August 2010.

Although all were released in less than 12 hours, they have to report to the police stations of their localities within two weeks.

The police arrest and dispersal of the protesters were unwarranted and disproportionate. In the first place, organisers of the Abolish ISA Movement' (known by the Malay acronym GMI) and SUARAM took steps to minimise the impact of the vigils on traffic and public safety, including that of the protesters, by announcing in advance the places - all of which were public - and securing permission for their use from the relevant municipal authorities. In Penang, it was to have been held at the very spot dedicated for the exercise of freedom of expression - the Speakers' Square.

Secondly, by no stretch of the imagination can a candlelight vigil be seen as a threat to public order. Yet, in Selangor and Penang, riot police disrupted the vigils before they could even start. In the former, the scene was chaotic when riot police chased participants off the designated field into a nearby shopping mall, beating some participants in the process, according to eyewitnesses. This needless response could have seriously injured not just the protesters but also bystanders.

The arrest of citizens who had wanted to gather to peacefully protest a law that violates the fundamental right against arbitrary arrest and detention, and to a fair and public hearing in court, makes a mockery of Malaysia's membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Such disproportionate response also reflects badly on Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose much-touted 1Malaysia concept exhorted, among others, a respect for the diversity of opinion.

CIJ reiterates that the freedom to assemble peacefully is a fundamental right accorded by the Federal Constitution to all citizens. It is the Police Act, which requires a permit for an 'assembly' of three and more persons, that is illegitimate and, like all unjust laws throughout history, should be defied.

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