The police must exercise restraint when dispersing protestors in accordance with the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, said the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) chairperson Abu Talib Othman in Kuala Lumpur today.
According to him, the police showed restraint and discretion when handling the demonstrations outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court two years ago when the guilty verdict was announced against ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
However, he pointed out that the police failed to act in a commendable manner during the Nov 5, 100,000 People's Gathering along the Kesas highway and this year's May Day gathering in Kuala Lumpur.
"The professionalism shown [by the police] in handling the provocative [High Court] demonstration helped ensure the peaceful nature of the gathering.
"The police were generally people friendly and non-confrontational in handling the crowd and the people's right to peaceful assembly was respected for over six hours," said Abu Talib in his keynote address at the opening of a two-day human rights workshop organised by Suhakam at the senior police officers training college in Cheras.
"The same, regretfully, cannot be said of the incident that occurred on the Kesas Highway and the May Day demonstration," he added.
A Suhakam inquiry later found the police guilty of using excessive force in dispersing the crowds who participated in the Kesas demonstration organised by Keadilan.
Meanwhile, the May Day gathering turned ugly when a scuffle erupted between police personnel and demonstrators.
The demonstrators claimed that the police had charged them without warning.
Fifteen people were detained over the incident.
Abu Talib said that although the right to peaceful assembly may at times be seen as "controversial", it is nevertheless a basic human right which must be given due recognition.
"Suhakam is of the view that peaceful assemblies do not necessarily disrupt peace and stability or cause any public disorder," he stressed.
According to Abu Talib, there need not be a conflict between human rights and law enforcement if policing is carried out effectively, lawfully and humanely.
Therefore, he said, training is required to show how the role of the police in protecting human rights can be reconciled with the protection of rights and freedoms.
Abu Talib also emphasised that illegal and inhumane policing may have dire consequences.
"If a person is subject to arbitrary arrest or unlawful or unnecessary detention, he may lose his employment, suffer economic deprivation, and [his] family may be subjected to hardship leading to his disintegration," he explained.
He said that while the use of force may present an area of "difficult moral dilemma" in policing, the police must also respect the "inherent dignity" of the person.
"Force should only be used...when strictly necessary for law enforcement and maintaining public order...There is no justification to use more force than necessary and torture is strictly prohibited," he said, adding that torture cannot be justified even in the name of national security and public order.
In dealing with detainees, the Suhakam chief said the police must observe humane treatment because these persons remain innocent until convicted.
He added that this is also necessary to avoid a miscarriage of justice since ill-treatment could lead to detainees to confess to crimes that they have not committed.
In relation to this, Abu Talib pointed out that complaints have been made to Suhakam against the police for violation of human rights.
"The complaints generally revolved around the issues of police behaviour, use of force against persons in detention, methods of interrogation and police inaction on complaints made by the public," he revealed.
Abu Talib also said that law enforcement officers and agencies, in using preventive detention, must carry out their functions fairly to avoid "severe criticisms" by the international community and the Malaysian public.
Speaking to reporters later, he said while there is a changing trend in the world about national security because of terrorism, this should not be taken to be a sanction to justify the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) for preventive detention.
According to him, what Suhakam is looking for is a standard of compliance with human rights principles, which is different from the issues on the validity of the law.
"If there are sufficient safeguards, the detainees can challenge the validity of the law," he said.
In a related matter, Inspector-General of Police Norian Mai dismissed the reports lodged against one of his officers by the May Day demonstrators who claimed they were subjected to excessive force as a "small case".
Norian, who was present at this morning's function, said he was not familiar with the issue and needed to look into it before he could comment.
Following the demonstration, 30 police reports were lodged against Dang Wangi district police chief Mohd Bakri Zinin for 'manhandling' the demonstrators.