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Though just for one hour, the arrest and detention of activist Harmit Singh outside the Embassy of the United States of America in Kuala Lumpur on 24 February was a dark one. This deprivation of liberty took place even before the protest began, signifying in plain sight criminalisation of the activist for participating in the Gegar Amerika rally.

‘Disobedience’ as alleged by the police for Harmit’s arrest is highly problematic, when the restriction issued by the police to not go past where the officers stood is neither necessary nor legitimate. There was no basis to presume that the rally would become violent, given full compliance by organisers with peaceful assembly procedures. A notice was submitted as per the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA), and a facilitation meeting with the police took place before the rally, hence the police were already fully aware of the rally purpose, which was to submit a memorandum to the Embassy. It is also noteworthy that non-violence has been unwaveringly observed by multiple rallies held outside the Embassy gates since October 2023, with the six-day Demi Kepung Palestin in December last year the most recent one. In addition, there was no traffic obstruction or threat to safety of other civilians involved, with the small scale of the rally and assembly participants gathering along the same side of the road as the Embassy.

Instead of arresting Harmit, the police should have facilitated the rally, allowing him to peacefully protest alongside other participants. This criminalisation tramples on laws that safeguard that right, namely Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution and the PAA. It also has a chilling effect on the exercise of right to freedom of expression overall, which can only deter constructive democratic participation including by Malaysians.

Our civic space is still far from being a safe and enabling one for all to speak up on critical issues without fear and reprisals despite legal safeguards, and attitudes and/or actions by law enforcement remained a longstanding barrier hindering substantial progress on that front. This is a stark reality that is also highlighted by member states last month when Malaysia’s human rights performance was reviewed in the Universal Periodic Review process. It is high time that the government acknowledges and addresses this issue.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) calls for a thorough review of police procedures regarding public assembly facilitation. Prohibition of tactics of intimidation should be prioritised, and grounds in which restrictions can be applied based on principles of necessity, proportionality and legitimacy specified. Full sensitisation of police officers via training of their role is crucial in ensuring that policing of public assemblies is done in a human rights-compliant manner.

Photo: Parti Sosialis Malaysia Facebook page

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