UN rights expert says Malaysia used ‘heavy handed’ response to protests

UN rights expert says Malaysia used ‘heavy handed’ response to protests

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[JURIST] UN Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue expressed concern [press release] Monday that Malaysia’s response to protests on Saturday was too strong, restricting freedom of association and hindering democratic process. La Rue was responding to media reports that Malaysian authorities used tear gas and water cannons against protestors as part of a rally organized by Bersih 2.0 [advocacy website], a coalition of non-government organizations pushing for democratic reforms in Malaysia. La Rue said that reports claimed that the Malaysian authorities’ reaction resulted in injuries, at least one death and the arrest of more than 1,600 people in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. La Rue said:

The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of peaceful protests, is essential for democracy. By declaring the demonstration illegal, sealing off parts of the capital in advance and responding in such a heavy-handed manner against peaceful demonstrators, the Government of Malaysia risks undermining democratic progress in the country. … Actions taken by the authorities prior to and during the rally unduly restricted the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Declaring Bersih illegal based on claims that it is trying to topple the Government or is a risk to national security and public order—in the absence of any credible evidence to substantiate such claims—is also an unnecessary restriction of civil and political rights.

Bersih 2.0 posted this video on its website which appears to be of Saturday’s protests:

Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said there will be an investigation into allegations of police brutality [AFP report] during the protests. He said the rally was on the verge of violence and that it did not have official permission.

Last year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention [official website] urged Malaysia to repeal or amend its internal security laws [JURIST report], which allow indefinite detainment without trial. At the end of an official visit, the group said amending the laws would allow Malaysia to conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [text]. Malaysia’s internal security laws have been heavily criticized. Last August, a Malaysian court charged 29 protesters [JURIST report] for their alleged involvement in rallies against the country’s Internal Security Act. The demonstration was allegedly started by the Abolish ISA Movement [advocacy blog]. The law was protested by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people in Kuala Lumpur, resulting in 589 arrests and the use of tear gas and water cannons by police. The protesters were charged with aiding an illegal organization or participating in an illegal rally since a police permit was not obtained. At the time, Prime Minister Najib Razak [official website; BBC profile] dismissed the protest as being unnecessary since he previously pledged to review the controversial law. In 2008, Malaysian rights group Suaram [advocacy website] said in a report that the human rights situation in Malaysia had deteriorated over the past year citing citing the country’s judicial fixing scandal [JURIST news archive] and lax prosecution of human rights offenders by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia [official website]. It also criticized the continued use of the ISA, under which it said more than 70 prisoners, including some human rights protesters [JURIST report], were still being held without charge.