International rights group slams Malaysia for banning rally calling for free elections

The Associated Press
Friday, November 9, 2007
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: A global human rights group slammed Malaysia’s government Friday for banning an opposition-backed rally that organizers said would attract tens of thousands of activists calling for free elections.

The country’s prime minister urged organizers to back down, but one said it would still be held.
Malaysian law required permits for public gatherings of more than five people. National police chief Musa Hassan denied permission for Saturday’s rally, saying it would “jeopardize public order.” Police also said it would inconvenience motorists.
“The grounds for refusing the rally are nonsense,” Brad Adams, Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly,” he said. “The way the system works now, only the ruling coalition can get its messages out.”
About 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition parties organized the rally for Merdeka (Independence) Square, a park in downtown Kuala Lumpur, to ask the government for electoral reforms. They expected a crowd of 10,000 to 40,000.
National elections are not due until 2009, but Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is widely expected to call them early next year.
Abdullah was adamant Friday about not allowing the rally. He urged organizers to back down.
“They are showing stubbornness and defiance for the law,” he said in a speech to party delegates. “I am saddened. I regret this. Are they challenging the government and the leadership?”
“Surely something bad will happen,” he said. “Democracy through street demonstrations is something that we cannot accept at all.”
Activists say Malaysian elections are generally tilted in favor of the ruling National Front coalition, due to the redrawing of constituencies to weed out known opposition supporters. There are also frequent allegations of vote buying and other irregularities, including Election Commission bias and ruling parties’ using public resources.
The National Front has been in power since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1952.
A police spokesman, who declined to be named citing policy, said that participants could face up to a year in jail, and that said 4,000 police personnel would be stationed at Merdeka Square.
Ronnie Liu, a senior opposition party member, said the rally would go ahead.
“This is a peaceful gathering … We just have one single demand — free and fair elections,” Liu told The Associated Press. “The reason why we keep losing elections is because the system is flawed and manipulated.”
Organizers are calling for the removal of “phantom voters” or bogus names from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, and access to state-controlled media for all political parties. The Election Commission has only agreed to another demand that voters daub a finger with indelible ink to prevent them casting more than one vote.