Malaysia advances new law banning street protests

Malaysia's ruling coalition advances ban on street protests criticized as repressive

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Malaysian lawmakers approved a ban on street protests Tuesday after opposition legislators boycotted the vote and activists criticized the ban as repressive and a threat to freedom of assembly.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition says the Peaceful Assembly Act is intended to strike a balance between public order and the right to peaceful assembly. The act passed easily in Parliament's lower house after the boycott, and the law is expected to be enforced after Parliament's upper house, also dominated by the National Front coalition, approves it as early as next month.

But Malaysian and international rights groups describe it as repressive because it bans street rallies and imposes tough restrictions and penalties for demonstrators. The law was announced only last week, and some critics say the vote was rushed without proper public consultation.

About 500 lawyers and their supporters marched to Parliament hours before the vote, urging lawmakers to reject the bill and chanting "Freedom to the people" before police stopped most of them from entering the complex.

The new law would confine demonstrators mainly to stadiums and public halls. Depending on the venue, organizers may be required to give 10-day advance notification to police, who would determine whether the date and location are suitable.

Children under 15 and non-citizens would be barred from attending rallies, which also cannot be held near schools, hospitals, places of worship, airports or gasoline stations. Demonstrators who break the law can be fined 20,000 ringgit ($6,200).

V.K. Liew, a deputy Cabinet minister in Najib's office who received a protest note from the lawyers Tuesday, suggested that critics should not be too quick to criticize the law.

"We should look at it holistically, not piecemeal," Liew told reporters.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he believed the Peaceful Assembly Act would be "more Draconian" than laws in Zimbabwe or Myanmar. Other opposition activists indicated they might challenge the law in court, insisting it breaches the people's constitutional rights.

Malaysian authorities have long been wary of political demonstrations. In July, police briefly arrested hundreds of protesters and fired tear gas at more than 20,000 people who marched in Kuala Lumpur to demand greater electoral transparency ahead of national polls widely expected next year.

Rights group Amnesty International on Monday called the Peaceful Assembly Act "a legislative attack on Malaysians' right to peaceful protest," while Human Rights Watch said the law was being pushed through Parliament with "undue haste."

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Associated Press writer Eileen Ng contributed to this report.

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