Malaysia court rules against student politics ban

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A Malaysian court ruled Monday that a law banning college students from political activities was unconstitutional, in a move hailed by the ban's opponents as a landmark decision.

Students have long campaigned for a repeal of the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which bars them from joining political parties and trade unions, saying the ban violates human rights and free speech.

Malaysia's Court of Appeal ruled that the law contravened constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

"This is a landmark decision... the net effect is that students are free to participate in political activities now," lawyer Ashok Kandiah, who represented four former political science students in challenging the ban, told AFP.

The ruling comes as speculation mounts that Prime Minister Najib Razak will soon call elections in which his long ruling coalition and the political opposition are both expected to court increasingly vocal youth voters.

However, a lawyer representing Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (the International University of Malaysia), which the four students had attended, told the court the decision would be appealed to the Federal Court, Malaysia's highest.

The students launched the court challenge last year following university threats to take disciplinary action against them after they were accused of campaigning for the opposition in a local by-election.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court had earlier upheld the ban's constitutionality.

The students were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

Ahmad Syukri Abdul Razab, who heads the student organisation umbrella group SMM, told AFP the ruling validated the long fight against the act.

"The decision shows to the people, to the government, that whatever the students have been fighting for for a long time is relevant. The government should pay attention to the students' demands," he said.

The UUCA, which deals mainly with administrative matters, was amended in 1975 to add the student politics ban following large demonstrations the previous year by university students protesting government economic policies.

The section that was found unconstitutional says that no student "shall express... support for or sympathy with or opposition to any political party, whether in or outside Malaysia."

Najib pledged in September to scrap laws considered repressive and promised greater respect for civil liberties.

Among the laws Najib has targeted for repeal is the much-maligned Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial.

However, the premier said at the time that the universities law would also be reviewed.

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