By Shannon Teoh
KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 — The use of the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) to claim damages from organisers of the April 28 Bersih rally has sparked condemnation from opposition politicians who are now claiming that the new law restricts the right to gather even more than previous legislation.
Yesterday, 10 Bersih leaders, including Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, became the first persons to be sued in a civil action under the PAA, introduced just days before the April 28 demonstration for free and fair elections.
The government is claiming RM122,000 for alleged damage to 15 government-owned vehicles.
This followed Tuesday’s charges levelled against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali of participating in an unlawful assembly, the first criminal charges under the same law which Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said would allow freedom of assembly “in accordance with international norms.”
Lawmakers from Pakatan Rakyat (PR) told The Malaysian Insider today the law is being used “in a demonisation campaign and shows the prime minister is no reformist but reactionary.”
“The move (to sue) is headed in the wrong direction from the reforms Najib promised,” DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang (picture) said.
“What about all those who were assaulted far away from Dataran Merdeka? Should they be queuing up to sue the government?” he asked, referring to dozens of protestors claiming they were attacked by groups of policemen after violence erupted at the rally.
PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub also said this was what “we anticipated when the Bill was tabled in Parliament last year, that it would be more draconian and repressive.”
“The spirit of section 27 of the Police Act lives on,” the Kubang Kerian MP said, referring to the provision that required police permits for public gatherings that was repealed when the PAA came into force.
The federal opposition had staged a walkout last November when the Bill was debated in Parliament after criticising the law, which bars street protests, as being more repressive than those in countries like Myanmar, which has one of the world’s poorest human rights records.
PKR de facto leader Anwar, deputy president Azmin and Rembau chief Badrul Hisham Shaharin were charged on Tuesday with taking part in the April 28 Bersih 3.0 rally under section 4(2)(c) of the PAA.
Yesterday, the government sued Bersih under section 6(2)(g) of the law which states that organisers must “ensure that the assembly will not endanger health or cause damage to property or the environment.”
Putrajaya is asking for compensation for 15 vehicles, mostly belonging to the police, that had to be repaired at a cost of RM122,000 and a declaration that Bersih breached section 6(2)(g).
PKR vice-president Chua Tian Chang said the suit “flew in the face of the justice and legal system” as the 10 Bersih leaders were being blamed for acts by other individuals which had nothing to do with them.
“So what the government is saying, if you organise an event, it has to be limited to your own club members. If anyone joins and damages property, you are at fault even if there is no line of responsibility.
“This basically means no public protests. Only private ones where you must register first,” the Batu MP said.
The April 28 rally that saw tens of thousands gather at six different locations before heading to Dataran Merdeka was peaceful until about 2.30pm when Ambiga asked the crowd to disperse.
But her announcement was not heard by most of the crowd who persisted to linger around the historic square which the court had already barred to the public over the weekend.
Just before 3pm, some protestors breached the barricade surrounding the landmark, leading police to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
Police then continued to pursue rally-goers down several streets amid chaotic scenes which saw violence from both sides over the next four hours.
Several dozen demonstrators have claimed that they were assaulted by groups of over 10 policemen at a time and visual evidence appears to back their claim but police also point to violence from rally-goers who also attacked a police car.
The police car then crashed into a building before some protestors flipped it on its side.