UN experts condemn Malaysia's new public order law

KUALA LUMPUR, December  9, 2011 (AFP) - United Nations human rights experts have denounced a new law in Malaysia that bans street protests, warning it may "arbitrarily and disproportionately" restrict the right to assemble peacefully.

In a joint statement issued in Geneva on Thursday, they cautioned that with the new Peaceful Assembly Bill people in Malaysia may not be able to express their dissent in public spaces without "fear of being detained or sanctioned."

Under the law, that would be enforceable after it gets royal assent, street protests are banned.

It also prohibits non-citizens and citizens under 21 years of age to assemble peacefully.

"Many of these restrictions are not justifiable under international law," said Maina Kiai, the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Another rights expert Margaret Sekaggya said banning people below 21 to assemble was alarming, adding the right to assemble and protest peacefully was an essential safeguard for the defence of human rights.

"Political and social participation through peaceful protests are not only an educational experience for children, youth and students but also an investment for society as a whole," he said.

Frank La Rue, expert on the right to freedom of expression, urged Malaysia to reconsider the adoption of the bill, which would contravene international human rights standards.

"The ability of all individuals to express themselves freely, including in the form of peaceful assemblies, is a litmus test for the level of democracy in any country," he said.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has defended the law, saying it is aimed to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly -- which currently can only be held with a police permit -- and accused critics of wanting to "confuse the public."

He has hailed the law as one of his many reforms to allow greater civil liberties -- aimed at gaining back support lost during the 2008 elections. Snap polls are widely expected next year.

Tian Chua, an opposition lawmaker with ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party, told AFP that the law is expected to come into force early next month.

"The draconian changes undermines democracy in Malaysia because it curtails opposition's ability to garner public support," he said.