Investigate threats against Bersih organizers
(Kuala Lumpur, November 18, 2016)—The Malaysian authorities should protect the right to peaceful assembly during the Bersih 5 rallies tomorrow, said Fortify Rights today. The authorities should investigate reported attacks and threats against Bersih organizers and hold perpetrators to account.
“Concerned citizens have the right to participate peacefully in this year’s Bersih rally calling for free and fair elections in Malaysia,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The government has an obligation to ensure Bersih organizers and participants can safely engage in their legitimate activities without fear of attack or arrest.”
Bersih—which means “clean” in Malay—are large-scale rallies organized to call for free and fair elections and an end to government corruption in Malaysia. Participants typically wear yellow shirts to demonstrate solidarity with the objectives of Bersih. The Bersih rally tomorrow will be the country’s fifth and is scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia, Kuching in Sarawak, and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Fortify Rights will be in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching to serve as an international human-rights monitor of Bersih rallies taking place there.
The Bersih organizing committee estimates that more than a half million people participated in the main rally in Kuala Lumpur during Bersih 4 and expects similar numbers for Bersih 5.
Although previous Bersih rallies took place with relatively minor incidents of violence reported, there are increased concerns over potential violence during Bersih 5 due to the possible presence of anti-Bersih “red-shirt” demonstrators. Red-shirt demonstrators are reportedly responsible for damaging vehicles involved in Bersih convoys during the past month and are believed to be organizing parallel rallies near Bersih rally sites.
In the lead up to Bersih 5, unknown individuals have reportedly issued death threats against Bersih organizers and their family members.
“The authorities should immediately investigate threats on Bersih organizers and hold perpetrators accountable,” said Amy Smith. “It’s critical that the Malaysian authorities take threats lodged against Bersih organizers and participants seriously.”
In addition to facing threats, members of the Bersih organizing committee are also facing legal challenges.
For example, Bersih organizing committee Chair Maria Chin Abdullah is currently under investigation for allegedly violating Section 11 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, which carries a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to Malaysian Ringgit 20,000 (US$4,500). The Malaysian police arrested Ms. Abdullah on October 29 at Kota Murudu in Sabah for distributing promotional flyers for the rally that failed to include the Bersih organizing committee’s address. The police released Ms. Abdullah after a two-hour interrogation of her activities.
Last month, the Malaysian authorities appealed a Court of Appeal decision to dismiss charges lodged against Ms. Abdullah for allegedly attempting to organize a gathering without prior approval by the police in violation of Section 9 (5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
More recently, the police questioned Ms. Abdullah on November 4 over allegations of receiving foreign funds “to undermine parliamentary democracy” in violation of Section 124(c) of the Penal Code. Section 124(c), which can also be read together with the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, carries a sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.
On November 17, Inspector-General of the Malaysian Police Force Khalid Abu Bakar said the Bersih 5 rallies would be regarded as illegal assemblies.
The Government of Malaysia should avoid interfering with peaceful activities around Bersih 5 and protect the right to peaceful assembly, said Fortify Rights.
In previous rallies, the Malaysian authorities used tear gas and water cannons on peaceful demonstrators. The authorities also arrested more than two dozen people for wearing yellow tee-shirts after banning yellow clothing promoting Bersih in the lead up to Bersih 4.
In the lead up to Bersih 5, Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid and Chief Secretary to the Government Ali Hamsa warned teachers and civil servants against participating in the Bersih rally.
Freedom of expression and assembly are protected under Article 10(1)(b) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution. The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are further protected under Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Malaysia has a long way to go to address the issues raised by Bersih,” said Amy Smith. “However, allowing critical voices to be heard through the Bersih rallies would be a positive first step.”
Bersih was initially founded as the “Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform” in July 2005. In November 2007, thousands of Malaysians rallied in the first ever Bersih demonstration, calling on the Election Commission of Malaysia to ensure a transparent electoral process.
The Barisan Nasional party has ruled Malaysia since the country gained its independence in 1957.
Since the founding of Bersih, rallies have been organized in 2011, 2012, and 2015 in the lead up to the parliamentary elections, which takes place once every five years. A “Global Bersih” movement organized by Malaysia’s diaspora communities have organized solidarity rallies at more than 30 international locations during the Bersih rallies.