By Syed Jaymal Zahiid | Malaysiakini

The police have arrested eight people, including five lawyers, for proceeding with a march to mark International Human Rights Day from the Sogo department store to Central Market in Kuala Lumpur early this morning.

The arrests came after a failed attempt by the organisers of the march to negotiate with the police to allow them to finish their march at their intended spot.

The 100-odd crowd was already halfway to their destination when the 500-strong police force gave the marchers a 10-minute warning to disperse.

The organisers, who believed that they could complete their march within the time limit, wanted to press on. According to an eyewitness, the police however cordoned off the area, moved in and made the arrests even before the stipulated deadline expired.

Those arrested included five lawyers – N. Surendran, Latheefa Koya, R. Sivarasa, Eric Paulsen, and Amer Hamzah. Others were Anthony Andu, Noor Aza Othman, and a bystander identified only as Ashraf Ali Raja.

They were arrested near the Jalan Tun Perak LRT station and were immediately taken to the Kuala Lumpur police headquarters.

The eight were arrested under the Police Act for illegal assembly, said Dang Wangi’s acting superintendent Che Hamzah Che Ismail.

“Firstly, the demonstrators did not have a permit to be here,” he said. “And because the lawyers and demonstrators failed to leave after repeated warnings to disperse, we had to take action.”

The remainder of the marchers dispersed following the arrests and there was a heavy police presence in the area for a few hours.

“Authorities seem to be upset by any visible signs of protest and I think this is a problem with the country,” said Sivarasa, who is also a leader of PKR.

“They don’t seem to be able to deal with peaceful dissent,” he told AFP before he was arrested.

Organiser Latheefa said that Malaysians needed to continue to exercise their constitutional right to public assembly.

Willing to cooperate

Earlier today, at about 8am, the small group of about 100 gathered at the Sogo departmental store under the watchful eyes of the police. There were however no signs of the dreaded Federal Reserve Unit and their water cannon trucks.

The marchers had carried banners that read “Lawyers for the freedom of assembly” and “Government that abuses human rights is terrorist.”

Eyewitnesses said that one of the persons arrested was dragged into the waiting police truck and the arrests were done despite the marchers’ willingness to cooperate with the police.

This small group of marchers has undertaken this march after the Bar Council had dropped its annual march in conjunction with the International Human Rights Day celebration — which falls on Dec 10 — due to pressure to obtain a police permit.

Yesterday the police had warned the public not to participate in the march given that no permit had been issued for the gathering.

“As no permit has been issued for the gathering, those who take part in it can be charged under section 27(5) of the Police Act 1967 for participating in an illegal assembly,” warned Che Hamzah in a Bernama report.

Upon the decision of the Bar Council to call off the march, at least 15 lawyers decided to proceed with the walk to make a statement that citizens have a right to assemble peacefully and without prior requirement of a police permit.

Venue changed

Two days ago, Surendran had said that the march was purely initiated by a group of concerned lawyers, adding that the organisers will not be applying for a police permit.

“We think that applying for a permit is a negation of our fundamental right to freedom of assembly as enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution,” he had explained.

“We feel the (Bar Council) march was called off due to undue pressure from the authorities. We want to send a message that the people of Malaysia have the right to a peaceful assembly,” Surendran said.

Bar Council chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan meanwhile had explained that the decision to call off the march was made after “anxious consideration to the present circumstances that surround the event, particularly the interests of the public and the Malaysian Bar.”

The Bar Council also moved its “Festival of Rights” event today to its own building located near Central Market after police insisted that organisers apply for a permit to hold the event at Central Market.

In a related development, Ambiga today expressed disappointment over not being allowed to see the arrested people.

Ambiga said that the march was peaceful and slammed the arrests as “totally unnecessary and unfortunate.”

“The Bar holds the view that requirement of police permit is unconstitutional,” she told reporters.

Later when contacted, Ambiga said that it was likely that the eight marchers would be charged tomorrow at the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court.

The police have also not decided if they want to release the eight or keep them detained overnight, she said.

“I don’t understand why they are being held. After all they have all given their statement,” she said after meeting the arrested marchers at the KL police headquarters.

She said that it was also a disgrace for the police to arrest these people, especially on the eve of the World Human Rights Day.

Meanwhile the police continued to exert pressure on the Bar Council over their “Festival of Rights” by arresting the Council’s Human Rights Committee chairperson Edmund Bon, allegedly for preventing the authorities from performing their duty.

Eyewitnesses said that Edmund was arrested at about 12.45pm for blocking Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) officials from removing human rights banners outside the Malaysian Bar building in Leboh Pasar Besar in Kuala Lumpur.

Immediate response

In an immediate response, PKR de facto leader and ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim lambasted the authorities for using the law “to subvert freedom and to suppress the people’s fundamental democratic right to peaceful assembly”.

“In the absence of any evidence that they planned to jeopardise the public’s safety, their arrest represents nothing more than scare tactics we have seen used in the past by the Malaysian government as it prepares to unleash the draconian measures of the Internal Security Act,” said Anwar in a statement this afternoon.

“The individuals who have been detained today are among the most patriotic Malaysian citizens and many have dedicated their life’s work to upholding the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Penang-based social movement Aliran said it deplored the “thoughtless and mindless reaction” of the government in cracking down on the march.

“We are appalled that even a small gathering of marchers to a nearby destination in an orderly manner without obstructing the traffic or causing any chaos to the public cannot be allowed or tolerated by this oppressive regime,” said Aliran president P. Ramakrishnan.

“If this little act of a democratic principle cannot be exercised in a responsible manner, can we pretend to be a democratic country any longer? This state abuse of our fundamental rights shames the country and condemns the leaders as hypocrites.”

Ramakrishnan called on the government to release those arrested, whom he described as “brave Malaysians who have been unjustifiably detained”.