Malaysia: Criminal investigations of peaceful protestors must end

Today the ICJ called on the Malaysian authorities to cease investigations of human rights defenders engaging in peaceful protest.

The ICJ further said that the investigations pose a threat to the exercise of the right to expression and peaceful assembly, which is protected under international law and the Malaysian Federal Constitution.

“These investigations have the effect of harassing and intimidating human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists and look worryingly like a new crackdown on dissent,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Director.

Malaysian law enforcement authorities have opened investigations against Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, an ICJ Commissioner, and nineteen (19) other individuals including human rights defenders Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, Dobby Chew, Amir Abd. Hadi and Nalini Elumalai. They are being investigated for violations of the deeply problematic Sedition Act 1948 and the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, in connection with wholly peaceful gatherings held over the past few days that were called attention to the recent, sudden political changes in Malaysia.

The ICJ raised concerns that the laws pursuant to which the investigations are being conducted are inconsistent with international and constitutional human rights law and standards. The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 imposes onerous requirements to organize a peaceful assembly. Meanwhile, the Sedition Act 1948 contains wide, overbroad definitions of what amounts to a ‘seditious tendency’, placing critical voices at risk.

“International law protects the right to hold peaceful assemblies, with limited exceptions not applicable here,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser. “The ICJ has repeatedly called on Malaysia to abolish these laws, which impose unjustifiably burdensome restrictions and disproportionate penalties on the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and other international legal authorities has also said that while some regulation can be appropriate concerning places of protest, “no authorization should be required to assemble peacefully.”

Previous governments have promised to abolish the Sedition Act, including the Pakatan Harapan coalition which pledged to scrap both the Sedition Act and reform the Peaceful Assembly Act as part of their election manifesto in 2018. To date, no such reforms has been undertaken.

The ICJ reiterated its call on the government to abolish the Sedition Act and abolish or reform the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.  The ICJ also called on the Malaysian government to end the use of these laws to harass and investigate persons solely for participation in peaceful protest.


Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser, International Commission of Jurists, t: +66 2 619 8477 local 203; e: emerlynne.gil(a)


Malaysian human rights defenders and civil society groups have been organizing peaceful assemblies to express concern over the current political developments. On 2 March 2020, Malaysian police opened investigations into several individuals for alleged violation of the Sedition Act.

Section 4(1) of the Act reads “[a]ny person who… does or attempts to do, or makes any preparation to do, or conspires with any person to do, any act which has or which would, if done, have seditious tendency… shall be guilty of an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable for a first offence to a fine not exceeding five thousand ringgits or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both.”

The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 sets down onerous requirements that must be met in order to carry out a peaceful assembly, including: restrictions on the right to organize or participate in an assembly (Section 4) which includes non-citizens; requirements for a ten day notice of an assembly to the  Officer in Charge of the Police District, failure to do so will be punished by a fine not exceeding ten thousand ringgit (Section 9(5)); and broad restrictions and conditions that may be imposed by the Officer in Charge of the Police District at their discretion  (Section 15).

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