Asia

Malaysia passes street protest ban as lawyers march

Lawyers demonstrate in Kuala Lumpur on 29 November 2011
Image caption Lawyers say the new laws on public assembly are more repressive than the old ones

The Malaysian parliament has passed a ban on street protests, despite a rally against the bill by crowds of lawyers.

Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote on the Peaceful Assembly Act, which the ruling party says eases regulations.

But critics say it replaces a rule requiring a police permit for a demonstration with one that bans street protests.

Some 500 lawyers marched in the capital ahead of the vote.

They chanted "freedom to assembly" and "freedom to the people", before police stopped most of them from entering the complex.

They say the new laws - which do allow gatherings in designated places like stadiums and public halls - are more repressive than the old ones.

Malaysian Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee told AFP news agency the ban was "outrageous".

"Assemblies in motion provide the demonstrators with a wider audience and greater visibility, in order for others to see and hear the cause or grievance giving rise to the gathering," he said.

But the government says the legislation - which also bans those under 21 from organising rallies - strikes a balance between the right to protest and public security needs.

Laws repealed

The move comes almost five months after Malaysians staged the biggest street rally against the government in recent years, calling for electoral reform.

The authorities were criticised for using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, reports the BBC's Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur.

Image caption Prime Minister Najib Razak is trying to be seen as a reformer

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is expected to call an election early next year, has been trying to boost his popularity by overhauling the country's web of security laws.

Last week, the government announced the repeal of three emergency proclamations providing for detention without trial.

Much of the legislation dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when Malaysia was racked by tensions between Muslim Malays and the ethnic Chinese, which at one point exploded into bloody riots.

Thousands of people are being held under the proclamations, according to a report on arbitrary detention by the UN Human Rights Council last year.

Campaigners say that many of those being held are petty criminals who have been denied due process.

Mr Najib also promised in September to repeal another law, the Internal Security Act, which has its origins in the anti-Communist legislation of the British colonial period. Correspondents say it has been used for decades to detain and intimidate government critics.

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