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Kita Lawan rally participants represented a majority of Malaysians - Photograph: Latheefa Koya

Malaysian authorities should drop charges against eight activists and opposition politicians for participating in peaceful “street protests” in Kuala Lumpur in February and March 2015, Human Rights Watch has said.

The Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest tribunal, will hear a constitutional challenge to the country’s ban on street protests on 10 October 2016.

“Malaysia’s blanket ban on street marches is legal overreach that betrays government paranoia about organised protests,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “However the Federal Court rules, the government should return to the drawing board and enact a law that respects the right to peaceful assembly.”

On 9 September 2015, more than six months after thousands of people marched in the so-called KitaLawan protests in support of the jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysian authorities filed charges against the eight activists and opposition politicians for unlawfully participating in what officials deemed “street protests.”

The charges were filed under Malaysia’s overly restrictive Peaceful Assembly Act, which imposes a blanket ban on participating in a “street protest”, defined as “an open air assembly that begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes”.

The right to peaceful assembly is not limited to static protests, but also protects processions and other forms of “moving” assemblies, Human Rights Watch said. By prohibiting all kinds of marches, Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly law imposes an unlawful restriction on the right to peacefully assemble that is recognised under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties.

Besides prominent opposition party officers, most of those charged were leaders or organisers of the peaceful Bersih 4.0 rally, held by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections in downtown Kuala Lumpur on 29-30 August 2015. Demonstrators called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, and institutional reform to end government corruption.

A week later, the authorities charged Maria Chin Abdullah, the Bersih chair; Mandeep Singh, the Bersih manager; Sim Tze Tzin, an opposition Parti Keadlin Rakyat (PKR) member of parliament; and Fariz Musa, an activist, with participating in an unlawful street protest on 28 March 2015.

Musa was also charged, together with Adam Adli, another activist, with participating in a street protest on 28 February 2015.

Authorities also charged two PKR state assemblymen and the secretary to PKR vice president Tian Chua with participating in a street protest on 21 March 2015.

All of those charged have challenged the constitutionality of the Peaceful Assembly Act’s ban on street protests.

“Peaceful marches and street protests are a legitimate way of expressing dissent and should not be the basis of criminal charges,” Robertson said. “The Malaysian government should immediately drop the charges against all the KitaLawan protesters and amend the Peaceful Assembly Act to comply with international standards.”

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