Bersih suits will test ‘constitutionality’ of assembly law, says Ambiga
KUALA LUMPUR, June 13 — Putrajaya’s lawsuit against Bersih over its April 28 rally and the resulting countersuit will challenge the very constitutionality of the new Peaceful Assembly Act, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan has said.
The Bersih co-chairman filed a counterclaim last Friday, seeking damages from the federal government for allegedly violating her constitutional rights at Bersih’s electoral reform rally.
“We are challenging the constitutionality of Peaceful Assembly Act. It is a legally interesting case because this is the first time the Act has been used and the first time it is being challenged for constitutionality,” she told reporters today.
“We were sued. We’re just defending ourselves, no bigger purpose in that. We’re prepared for trial,” she added.
High Court judge Prasad Sandosham Abraham today set July 18 as the date for the next hearing, giving Senior Federal Counsel Azizan Md Arshad time to prepare a reply to Ambiga’s counterclaim.
The prominent lawyer-activist accused the Najib administration of abusing its power by ordering the police and the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) to block the April 28 sit-down rally from taking place here which she said would have been as peaceful as those held elsewhere in the country.
Last month, Putrajaya took the unprecedented step of suing Ambiga and nine other Bersih steering committee members, as the rally organisers, for damages worth RM122,000.
Veteran lawyers Tommy Thomas, Edmund Bon and Gopal Sreenevasan will represent the Bersih leaders.
Ambiga said the newly-enforced Peaceful Assembly Act does not “expressly or impliedly” empower the federal government to sue for damages to public property as it is “not a member of the class of persons intended to be protected under the Act”.
She also said the demonstrators who took part in the rally did so as “free agents” and that neither she nor Bersih as the organisers were liable for events that happened after she had announced it over at 2.40pm and asked them to disperse.
The government filed its suit against Ambiga last May 23 under Section 6(2)(g) of the law, which states that organisers must “ensure that the assembly will not endanger health or cause damage to property or the environment.”
“The plaintiff charges that the defendants failed to carry out their statutory responsibility when the assembly went out of control and turned into a riot, causing damage to vehicles owned by the plaintiff,” the writ said.
The government’s statement of claims lists 15 vehicles, mostly belonging to the police, that had to be repaired at a cost of RM122,000.
The government also wants general damages, interest and a declaration that Bersih breached Section 6(2)(g) of the assembly law.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said when tabling the law in Parliament last year that it would be “revolutionary” and allow Malaysians to participate in public gatherings “in accordance with international norms.”
The April 28 rally had started peacefully but descended into chaos when some protestors breached a barricade at Dataran Merdeka, prompting police to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.