KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Hundreds of Malaysian lawyers staged a rare protest march Tuesday demanding that the government abandon plans for a law that will forbid street rallies.
The protest led by Malaysia's main grouping of lawyers occurred hours before federal legislators were scheduled to debate and potentially pass the Peaceful Assembly Act proposed by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.
Malaysian and international rights groups say the law would be repressive because it bans street demonstrations and imposes tough restrictions and penalties for rally organizers.
About 500 lawyers representing Malaysia's Bar Council and rights activists marched to Parliament, chanting "Freedom to assembly" and "Freedom to the people" before police stopped most of them from entering the complex.
They accused Najib's National Front coalition of rushing to enact the law, which had been announced only last week, without proper public consultation.
"We hope the government will listen to the voice of the people," said Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee.
The ban on street demonstrations means rallies would be restricted to stadiums and public halls. Organizers may be required to give 10-day advance notification to police, who would determine whether the date and venue are allowed.
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 denounce the law.
"We should look at it holistically, not piecemeal," Liew told reporters.
Officials have said the law is intended to strike a balance between public order and the right to peaceful assembly.
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."
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters at Parliament on Tuesday that he believed the law would be "more Draconian" than laws in Zimbabwe or Myanmar.
Associated Press writer Sean Yoong contributed to this report.