Committee okays ‘draconian’ Bill

MASERU — The controversial Public Meetings and Processions Bill 2009 sailed through parliament’s law and public safety portfolio committee without any major changes.
The committee headed by Rethabile Marumo of the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) presented in parliament on Monday an additional sub-clause that adds to the list of punishable offences under the proposed law.
The additional sub-clause added to the Bill by the 18-member committee proposes to punish anyone who “disrupts or incites any other person to disrupt a public meeting or procession under this Act”.
Parliamentary portfolio committees are supposed to scrutinise proposed laws to ensure they do not violate the constitution and that they are compatible with other laws of the country.
They are also supposed to ensure that the law does not infringe on basic rights.
They can also gather public opinion on a proposed law.
In its report the committee said it had discussed the Bill with the Home Affairs and Public Safety Minister Lesao Lehohla whose ministry had initiated the Bill.
Senior ministry officials also attended the meetings, the report said.
Yet although the Bill has caused an outcry from some sections of society who have described it as “draconian and diabolical” the law and safety committee gave its consent.
The report however notes that during some of their meetings some committee members raised concerns about the idea of people having to apply to hold meetings.
“The committee wishes to state that during the entire discussions of this Bill, the views and arguments of the minority were taken on board in respect of application versus notification,” said the report.
The Lesotho Times understands that three opposition MPs who are members of the committee felt that the idea of applying to hold a public meeting violated the people’s rights of association.
Seabata Thabisi of the Basotho National Party is understood to have been the most vocal of the dissenting voices.
But for all their protests, the MPs failed to sway the committee to make significant changes to the Bill.
Civil groups and political parties will still have to apply for permission from the police or village headmen to hold a public meeting or demonstration.
The Bill seeks to give even more unrestricted powers to the police or headman over public gatherings.
For instance, it says even after giving permission the police or headman can decide to stop the meeting if they believe that it may “pose a potential threat or harm to public safety, security, or order”.
The Bill still leaves the definitions of what constitutes “public safety, security, or order” to the police or headman.
The application for permission to hold a public meeting, the Bill says, must be made in writing and if the applicant deems it urgent they must give specific reasons for urgency.
It says permission might be refused if the police or headman “reasonably suspect a threat or harm to peace, public safety, public security and public order”.
The police may also set conditions for the meeting or demonstration.
This means the police may decide the time and venue of a public meeting or they may change the route of a demonstration.
The police many also give “conditions prohibiting a procession from entering specific public places”.
The police or headman can also decide whether or not sound amplifiers may be used to address a gathering, the proposed law says.
But even after giving permission, the police or headman will have the power to stop a meeting that is already in progress if they feel that the conditions that they would have imposed will not be sufficient enough to maintain order.
It says any person who knowingly organises or assists in organising a public meeting or procession without permission shall be imprisoned for five years or pay a fine not exceeding M10 000 — or both.
The same punishment, according to the Bill, shall be imposed on people who fail or refuse to comply with the conditions imposed by the headman or police.
The Bill however leaves room for people who are denied permission to hold a meeting to appeal to the Minister of Home Affairs, Public Safety and Parliamentary Affairs.
It says the appeal might be lodged with the minister within three days of refusal or cancellation.
Because parliament is dominated by LCD MPs, there are fears that the Bill that has caused agitation among opposition parties might be passed in its current form.
Civic organisations are worried.
Transformation Resource Centre’s good governance officer Mothusi Seqhee said the Bill was undemocratic.
“If the Bill becomes law it means the freedom to exercise political rights is limited,” Seqhee said.
“This pulls us back as far as democracy is concerned. Democracy allows a person to do whatever he wishes as long as he is within the parameters of the law.”
Seqhee also said the target seemed to be “organisations that are seen as anti-government”.
“This is just to target certain groups because people will have to seek permission which could be denied. By certain groups I mean political movements which are not pro-government,” Seqhee said.
He also criticised the portfolio committee for not consulting the public before compiling the report.

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