Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BERSIH Gathering: Police blockades and use of force unnecessary

Malaysian Bar Council

No. 13, 15 & 17, Leboh Pasar Besar, 50050 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 03-2031 3003 (Hunting Line) Fax: 03-2034 2825, 2026 1313, 2072 5818


BERSIH Gathering: Police blockades and use of force unnecessary

The Bar Council sent a team of 40 lawyers to monitor the BERSIH gathering on 10 November 2007.

The gathering despite being attended by tens of thousands, was disciplined and peaceful contrary to recent statements by Ministers and the Inspector-General of Police. It proves once again that Malaysian citizens are rational and responsible people capable of exercising their rights of expression and assembly with mature restraint.

There were nevertheless several worrying features in the conduct of the police:

  1. The large number of police personnel deployed to man blockades, to inspect and detain vehicles and persons, and further to prevent persons from entering the city to join the gathering was unreasonable. It was also a disproportionate use of resources which could have been channeled to other initiatives of crime-fighting.

  2. The barricades around Dataran Merdeka with heavy police and FRU personnel aimed at prohibiting persons from entering the square forced large groups of people to be concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the square such as Central Market and Masjid Jamek. This caused more inconvenience to those who did not wish to be at the gathering, and strengthened the spirit of those who did.

  3. The use of force around the areas of Masjid Jamek, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Raja Laut to disperse unarmed and non-provocative crowds without prior warning was unnecessary. Deploying physical aggression and violence, and spraying chemically-laced water and tear gas are measures of last resort, not of first instance. As a result, it was unfortunate that several people were injured and many others including bystanders hurt by the chemicals in the water and gas. It is noteworthy that the authorities initiated physical force on the crowds, and caused blockades and 'stand-offs' on the roads to prevent anyone from walking to Dataran Merdeka on to Istana Negara. Unsurprisingly however, and due to the sheer numbers of participants, the majority if not all of them found their way by different routes to the Istana Negara road.

  4. The deployment of several police helicopters flying very low to the ground was extremely dangerous in addition to being provocative and a form of intimidation. Further, the noise the helicopters created interrupted essential communications for those who were at the gathering and the authorities on the ground.

  5. Despite the recent introduction of section 28A of the Criminal Procedure Code, the police refused to give the Bar's Urgent Arrest Lawyers Team access to those who were arrested and detained. No accurate and adequate information on the detainees and their grounds of arrest was forthcoming. Our lawyers had to force their way into the police station to seek further information. A police report has been lodged, and the Bar Council trusts the police will investigate the complaint immediately.

    At about 11.00pm on 10 November 2007, 34 persons were arrested and released in separate batches. There were several who needed medical treatment and were sent to the hospital by our lawyers.

The Bar Council reiterates its position that citizens must be allowed the right to peacefully assemble in exercising their democratic and fundamental human right. We urge the authorities to facilitate this fundamental right of freedom of expression and assembly.

The BERSIH gathering is clear evidence (a) that attempts to block assemblies would create greater unintended chaos than had the same be facilitated to proceed expeditiously and (b) that large yet peaceful gatherings may be organised in our country without the necessity of obtaining permits from the police. This requirement in section 27 of the Police Act 1967 that permits must be given before an assembly may be held must be repealed immediately.

Ambiga Sreenevasan
Malaysian Bar

12 November 2007

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