A UN panel of independent human rights experts warned Wednesday that recently-passed legislation in Malaysia would severely curtail the right to peaceably assemble [UN News Centre report; press release] in that country. The Peaceful Assembly Act 2011 [bill, PDF], which passed the lower house [JURIST report] of Parliament [official website] last week, would limit free speech rights by forbidding Malaysian citizens under the age of 21 and non-citizens from assembling, enacting conditional access for media to public gatherings and outlawing street protests altogether. Those who violate the new law may be penalized with thousands of dollars in fines. The UN Special Rapporteur on free expression urged Malaysia's government not to adopt the bill, calling the right to peaceably assemble "a litmus test for the level of democracy in any country." The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants noted that prohibiting non-citizens from assembling also violates international law, under which "everyone" has the right to freedom of assembly and association, without distinction of any kind. Last week approximately 500 lawyers marched on Parliament in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in protest of the bill's ban on street protests. Numerous rights groups reportedly plan to challenge the law in court.
In November Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak [official profile] defended the bill [JURIST report], saying it would balance citizens' right to protest with public safety concerns. However, the bill has drawn ire from both Malaysians and the international community. Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim [official website; JURIST news archive] has stated that the bill is more draconian than previous free speech crackdowns in Zimbabwe and Myanmar [JURIST reports]. In late October the Malaysian Court of Appeal [official website] ruled that a similar law prohibiting college students from taking part in political activities is unconstitutional [JURIST report]. The suit, filed by four International Islamic University of Malaysia [official website] students in 2010, challenged the constitutionality of the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) [text, PDF] prohibiting students from political participation. Also last month, Malaysia's government released 125 prisoners [JURIST report] who were being held under a decades-old security law that has been widely criticized by human rights and opposition groups. In September, Razak announced that the government would repeal two strict security laws [JURIST report] that had allowed extended detention of suspects without trial. The government also said that it will review other laws dealing with freedom of the press.