Malaysian police halted an annual human-rights march on Sunday, arresting at least four people and drawing widespread criticism for being intolerant of dissent. (REUTERS/Stringer)

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 police give 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 (photo), Latheefa Koya, R Sivarasa, Eric Paulsen and Amer Hamzah. Others were Anthony Andu, Norazah Othman and an unidentified activist.

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.

The remainder of the marchers dispersed following the arrests.

“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 have 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 of 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 disappointed 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.

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.