By Ida Lim
KUALA LUMPUR, May 22 — Human Rights Watch today urged the government to drop charges against Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders for taking part in the April 28 Bersih 3.0 rally, saying that there seems to be targeted political prosecution.
Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, PKR deputy president Azmin Ali and Rembau PKR chief Badrul Hisham Shaharin were today charged with taking part in an illegal rally under section 4(2)(c) of the Peaceful Assembly Act, which states that “a person commits an offence if he organises or participates in a street protest.”
The three were also charged under the Penal Code with abetting to incite three other individuals to breach a court order by opening the police barricade enclosing Dataran Merdeka during the rally.
“The Malaysian authorities appear to be using what happened at the Bersih demonstration as a pretext to prosecute political opposition leaders,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“These charges, and the actions by police at the Bersih rally, don’t inspire confidence that the Malaysian government is committed to protecting basic free expression rights,” he added.
The human rights group pointed out that the two previous sodomy cases against Anwar are also widely viewed as “politically motivated” and “aimed at keeping him from leading the political opposition”, saying that those convicted under the Penal Code “becomes ineligible to be elected to Parliament.”
Human Rights Watch sees the Peaceful Assembly Act, which came into force a few days before the Bersih protest, as falling short of international standards and in need of reform.
“The Peaceful Assembly Act bans so-called street protests and contains an overly broad list of areas in which all assemblies are banned — a list that makes it virtually impossible for protesters to hold demonstrations in urban areas,” the group said in a statement.
“The best way to reform the Peaceful Assembly Act is to repeal it and draft a new law,” Robertson said. “The government needs to go back to the drawing board.”
The Act was introduced as part of the government’s legislative reform package and was intended to allow freedom of assembly in accordance with “international norms”.
The human rights organisation is also doubtful of the ability of a government-appointed independent panel to “impartially investigate the Bersih 3.0 protests.”
The so-called “Hanif panel” has been criticised as its head, former police chief Tun Hanif Omar, was said to have alleged that pro-communists were involved in the Bersih rally.
The organisers of Bersih 3.0 had said that “he (Hanif) has also agreed with Najib’s allegation that Bersih 3.0 was an attempted coup d’etat against the government. By so doing, he has shown that he is biased and has already pre-judged the outcome of the investigation.”
The peaceful Bersih rally for electoral reforms had turned violent and chaotic when barricades at Dataran Merdeka was breached, causing the police to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.