No intention to use new law to regulate peaceful assemblies
A law enacted in 1958 to provide special powers to deal with large-scale communal riots has never been used against public assemblies and there is no intention to use an updated version of the law to regulate peaceful public assemblies.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said yesterday that the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill is "not meant for "day-to-day policing". The difference between the existing Act and the Bill is "new provisions which would allow us to better deal with today's prevailing terror threat", it added.
This was in response to concerns raised in a joint statement on March 14 by several local civil society groups that claimed provisions in the Bill could lead to an abuse of power by the police, and oppression against peaceful protesters.
In the Bill, which was tabled in parliament on Feb 27, serious incidents are described as a terrorist act, serious violence affecting the public, and acts causing large-scale public disorder.
In its statement, the group called on the Government to narrow the definition of "serious incidents", arguing that peaceful protests should not be treated in the same way as terrorist violence. But the MHA said it is disingenuous to assert that large scale assemblies are devoid of violence and injuries.
"In the 2011 London Riots, at least 202 people, including police officers, were injured, and five people died, after what started off as a peaceful assembly," said the ministry.
The civil society group said that with existing strict laws against assembly, the police are already empowered to respond to peaceful protests "as they would any prohibited activity, and have done so" and said special powers are not needed.
The MHA said the threshold for special powers to be activated in the Bill is high and can only be used by the police after the Minister for Home Affairs has issued an Activation Order. This can only be done after he is satisfied that a serious incident has occurred or is occurring.