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CIVIL society organisations working on freedom of expression stand in solidarity with and applaud the organisers of the #Lawan rally for a peaceful and organised protest today. We condemn the investigation and arrest of protest organisers prior to the event, the authorities’ obstruction of the protest by setting up roadblocks and barricades, as well as threats by the police to take action against participants.
Freedom of assembly and expression are fundamental rights, and essential in ensuring government efficacy and accountability. These rights must be protected and upheld, and the pandemic cannot be used as a pretext to prevent people from exercising these important rights.
In recent weeks, Malaysia has experienced a soaring Covid-19 caseload, overwhelmed hospitals and many deaths. At the same time, livelihoods have been threatened and lost. The government declared an emergency, imposed draconian laws and suspended Parliament. In a functioning democracy, even during a pandemic, the people must be allowed to demand accountability from the government, including through peaceful protests by adopting appropriate public health measures.
Representatives from our organisations, which work to promote freedom of expression in Malaysia, were on the ground during the #Lawan protest today to monitor the rally and document any rights violations. The protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a full Parliament sitting, and a moratorium on the repayment of all loans. They also highlighted the high Covid-19 death toll at the protest. The gathering ended peacefully around 12.35pm after organisers and the police instructed the crowd to disperse.
Our observers noted that all routes to Dataran Merdeka were cordoned off with barricades, and protesters were not allowed to access the square. Protesters therefore improvised, marching on the road near Dataran Merdeka and holding a sit-in protest instead.
Barring access to a public square constitutes a breach of the right to peaceful assembly. Protest organisers took proactive steps and issued detailed guidelines on Covid-19 standard operating procedure (SOP), including requiring protesters to double mask, practise social distancing, and sanitising their hands. To uphold the fundamental right of peaceful assembly while appreciating the gravity of the current pandemic, the police should have worked with the organisers to facilitate the protest. By barricading access to Dataran Merdeka, the police had in fact made it more difficult to comply with Covid-19 SOP by forcing protesters onto the road.
Our observers also noted excessive police presence in vehicles and on foot, including several armed police officers, the presence of a Black Maria vehicle, and a low-flying helicopter. Police officers in uniform and in plain clothes were also taking photographs and videos of protesters. These constitute intimidatory tactics that inhibit protesters’ right to assemble and, again, serve to obstruct rather than facilitate their peaceful protest. Surveillance of protesters impacts their freedom of expression and may also deter others from exercising this right.