UN Human Rights Office concerned over Ambiga’s yellow Bersih 4 shirt probe

Prominent lawyer and activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan addressing bersih 4 participant in downtown Kuala Lumpur on August 30, 2015. — Picture by Kamles Kumar
Prominent lawyer and activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan addressing bersih 4 participant in downtown Kuala Lumpur on August 30, 2015. — Picture by Kamles Kumar

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) today queried the authorities’ move to investigate prominent activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan for wearing a yellow shirt bearing the words “Bersih 4”, as it commended their handling of two rallies held in the city in recent weeks.

Matilda Bogner, regional representative for the OHCHR, said they were “pleased” with how the authorities, especially the police, managed the Bersih 4 rally over the Merdeka weekend and this week’s Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu on Malaysia Day, but noted with unease the probes launched on Ambiga and two others.

“OHCHR expects the Government to continue to protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association by allowing, as well as facilitating, peaceful rallies,” she told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

“The office, however, is concerned over reports that three individuals, including the former Malaysian Bar Council President Datuk S. Ambiga, are being investigated by authorities for wearing yellow T-shirts bearing the name ‘Bersih 4’,” she added.

Bogner noted that the Malaysian government had on August 28, just a day before the Bersih 4 rally, issued a decree under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 to ban people from wearing those shirts.

According to Bogner, the UN Human Rights Office had observed this Wednesday’s rally remotely from its regional office in Bangkok, Thailand.

“OHCHR observed that the rally passed relatively peacefully, although there were minor scuffles at the end,” she said, replying in the negative when asked if the UN Human Rights Office will be sending any communication to the Malaysian government or making any statement on the rally.

Bogner said, however, that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had in his September 14 speech to the Human Rights Council “clearly expressed his concerns on the situation concerning democratic space in Malaysia”.

She quoted the High Commissioner’s speech, where he stated:  “In Malaysia, the Government has increasingly sought to restrict public debate and protest around issues of governance and corruption.

“This effort has included amendments to the 1948 Sedition Act, to further broaden the activities categorised as offenses and introduce harsher penalties, and the arrest of individuals for tweeting criticism of corruption by officials or the policies of the Government or malfeasance by officials,” the High Commissioner was also quoted stating in his speech.

Following the peaceful end to the two-day Bersih 4 rally, police have taken statements from members of the 34-hour event organiser Bersih 2.0’s steering committee and is probing former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for allegedly defaming Umno when he attended the rally.

Several activists and politicians have been questioned by police, but Ambiga yesterday called the police probe on her over the shirt as “ridiculous” amid more pressing matters in Malaysia and said she will challenge the PPA gazette that deemed the yellow Bersih 4 garment as illegal.

Riot police form a wall at the entrance of Petaling Street to prevent protesters from breaking through, September 16, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Riot police form a wall at the entrance of Petaling Street to prevent protesters from breaking through, September 16, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

The police have been roundly praised by Malaysians over their role in facilitating and their conduct during both the Bersih 4 rally and the rally this Wednesday, where they were reportedly using minimal force while keeping protesters in the latter case out of off-limit tourist spots Petaling Street and Bukit Bintang.

The rally this Wednesday, officially known as “Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu” but also called “Himpunan Maruah Melayu”, saw the police forced to fire water cannons when protesters insisted on breaching a police cordon at Petaling Street. 

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