Government urged to support free speech (IOL)

Independent Online, South Africa
November 10 2007, 3:44PM
Kuala Lumpur – Tens of thousands of protesters massed outside Malaysia’s royal palace on Saturday, facing off against riot police in defiance of a government ban on the rally calling for clean and fair elections.
The demonstrators, an alliance of opposition parties and civil society groups, had marched in the driving rain to the palace, chanting “Election Reform” and “Justice”.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had vowed to suppress the demonstration, backing police who said they feared riots could break out.
But the rally went ahead despite efforts to close down the centre of Kuala Lumpur, with a heavy police presence and roadblocks that caused traffic snarls.
“There are close to 30 000 protesters here at the moment. We have agreed to have them sit down in front of the palace and have four representatives present a petition” to the palace representative, a senior police officer said.
Some 400 police in riot gear were deployed at the palace, including dozens armed with automatic weapons and several with tear gas launchers. Two water cannons were set up behind police lines.
“The Malaysian public must be allowed to express their opinions and views,” parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said at the palace gates before going in to deliver the petition.
“It is not fair for the government not to issue a permit for this rally to take place as it is only the voice of the people being expressed here,” he said.
“We are happy that the police have not used violence yet and we hope the event remains peaceful, but we are unsure at this moment.”
Organisers had planned to hold the rally at the city’s Independence Square but were forced to shift the venue after police sealed it off.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has slammed the government’s stance on the mass rally and urged it to support free speech as the nation heads towards elections expected to be called early in 2008.
“If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. The way the system works now, only the ruling coalition can get its messages out,” it said.
Human Rights Watch said Malaysian elections have been sullied by vote-buying, the use of public resources by the ruling parties and accusations of bias against the Election Commission.
Former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who was heir apparent to former premier Mahathir Mohamad until his sacking in 1998, when he was jailed for six years for sodomy and corruption, was due to address the rally.
Anwar’s sodomy conviction was later overturned but the corruption verdict stands, barring him from standing for public office until April 2008.
Protests are rare in Malaysia, and the last major rallies were seen in 1998 during the “Reformasi” or “Reform” movement that erupted after Anwar’s sacking. Police suppressed those demonstrations with water cannons and mass arrests.