KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — The lower house of the Malaysian Parliament approved a measure Tuesday that would ban street demonstrations, hours after hundreds of lawyers and activists chanting “freedom to the people” protested against the legislation, which they said would further restrict democratic rights in the country.
The Peaceful Assembly Act must still be approved by the upper house, the Senate, before it takes effect, but analysts said that they expected easy passage because the Senate was dominated by government members.
Opposition party members, who had called for the legislation to be withdrawn, walked out of Parliament before the vote Tuesday, saying that they would refuse to participate because only three opposition members had been permitted to speak on the issue.
The legislation, which would impose fines of up to 20,000 ringgit, or $6,000, on violators, comes after Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged in September to embark on a series of reforms.
Civil rights groups and opposition parties say Mr. Najib has failed to deliver on his promise to make Malaysia a “modern, progressive nation” and that the Peaceful Assembly Act is more repressive than existing laws.
Lim Chee Wee, president of the Malaysian Bar Council, which organized the protest Tuesday, said the ban on street processions violated the “constitutionally guaranteed right” to have an “assembly in motion.” “The Malaysian Bar Council is very disappointed that the government is rushing with unholy haste this piece of legislation without seeking adequate feedback from relevant stakeholders,” he said.
Under existing law, Malaysians must apply for a police permit for gatherings of more than five people. The Peaceful Assembly Act does not require people to obtain a permit, but organizers must notify the authorities 10 days in advance unless they are meeting in “designated places,” which are not specified in the bill.
No gatherings would be permitted within 50 meters, or about 160 feet, of prohibited places including hospitals, schools or places of worship, and no one under the age of 21 would be permitted to organize a protest. The police would be able to impose conditions, including the date, time and place of the assembly.
During the march Tuesday, a police roadblock prevented most of the lawyers from reaching Parliament. However, 10 members of the Malaysian Bar Council were allowed to enter.
Mr. Lim, who handed copies of a draft alternative bill to V.K. Liew, a deputy cabinet minister, and to Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, in the Parliament lobby, was cheered when he returned to the crowd of waiting lawyers.
“Today we have shown to the Parliament we can have a peaceful walk for freedom,” he said, adding that the Bar Council would keep up its fight against the bill.
“We must continue to knock on the doors of Parliament to make sure this bill doesn’t enter the statute books,” he said.
Mr. Lim later said in an interview that the Bar Council would continue to lobby the government and senators against final approval. “The Bar will not give up hope in its objective of preventing this bill becoming law,” he said.
International rights groups, including Amnesty International, had also called for the bill to be withdrawn, saying that it would further tighten the country’s “excessive restrictions” on peaceful protests ahead of elections widely expected to be called early next year.
“If the Malaysian government is serious about holding free and fair elections, it needs to end this assault on the right to peaceful protest,” Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
After meeting with Bar Council representatives, Mr. Anwar said that the law was more repressive than those found in Zimbabwe and Myanmar. “We cannot accept the bill as it stands,” he said.
The outcry over the Assembly Act has largely overshadowed the government’s announcement last week that it would repeal three emergency laws that allowed detention without trial and that it would permit students older than 21 to join political parties.
Mr. Najib’s pledge to introduce a series of reforms came after the government was condemned for its handling of a July protest at which tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse thousands of demonstrators calling for greater transparency in elections.