Do Laws Prohibiting Protest Work?

by Noah Simon | January 28, 2014

Protesters Gather in Ukraine, January 2014

Protesters Gather in Ukraine, January 2014 (Wikimedia Commons / Mstyslav Chernov )

In recent weeks and months, several nations introduced legislation to suppress, minimize, or completely outlaw public demonstrations. Many Western powers, international human rights organizations, and activists condemned these recent laws against protest. In the long-term, these laws could present serious challenges to guaranteeing freedom of expression and assembly if they are upheld. However, in the short-term, these laws have not deterred citizens from gathering in large numbers in spite of increased punishments and frequent arrests.

Ukraine

On January 28, the Ukrainian parliament repealed anti-protest legislation passed only two weeks earlier. In the midst of Euromaidan protests, a Ukrainian court introduced these laws which limited forms of public assembly. Among other penalties, blocking public buildings would lead to a six-year jail sentence. Citizens could also be detained for 15 days for installing tents and stages without authorization, or wearing clothing that conceals one’s face during demonstrations.

The laws were received by Euromaidan protesters with outrage as they continued rallies in Kiev’s Independence Square. Three days after the passing of anti-protest laws, roughly 200,000 gathered in Kiev to continue demonstrations. Many put pots on their heads or wore masks in defiance of the laws that prohibited such attire at public gatherings.

The government expanded its effort to curb protests on January 21 when citizens in Kiev received text messages telling them they were “registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”. The text was sent based on location in an effort to warn Ukrainians against entering protest areas in Kiev.

The anti-protest legislation failed to deter Euromaidan protesters from gathering in Kiev. In fact, since the implementation of anti-protest laws, the number of participants increased back to the hundreds of thousands that first gathered in November. Internationally, the laws caused grave concern among Western powers who urged the Ukrainian government to seek a peaceful solution with protesters. Moreover, the restrictions on public assembly fueled the anger of many Ukrainians who are continuing their struggle for political change.

Egypt

In November 2013, the Egyptian government adopted legislation that granted security forces complete discretion to ban and disperse protests. The law prohibits any public gathering of more than 10 people without prior government approval from the Interior Ministry, and specifically bans all demonstrations at places of worship. The latter condition had particular relevance, as protesters have routinely utilized Friday prayer at mosques to commence anti-government marches and demonstrations.

Supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi have persisted to demonstrate daily in the face of the protest ban, which has led to hundreds of arrests and a high number of casualties.

 The first major defiance of the law occurred in November, when a group of pro-democracy activists including protest leaders Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel participated in an unauthorized protest outside the upper house of parliament. The three members of the April 6 Youth Movement were found guilty of contesting the restrictive legislation and sentenced to three years in jail in late December.

On December 27, supporters of Morsi staged a large demonstration where five people were killed, and over 250 were arrested. Many demonstrations were also held during the initial hearings of Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and in the days leading up to the constitutional referendum (which was boycotted by Morsi supporters).

 Spain

In November 2013, Spain introduced an anti-protest law that penalizes those who participate in unauthorized street protests, interrupt public events, or publish images of police. Fines for participating in unauthorized protests can reach up to 600,000 euro and can be issued merely for “offensive slogans” against Spain.

Thousands gathered to demonstrate against the new anti-protest law in Madrid on December 14. Violence broke out between some protesters and police, leaving more than 20 people injured.

On December 24, men and women gathered across Spain to demonstrate against a draft bill that would limit abortion rights. A video released of a police officer beating a young woman in Madrid that night went viral. There were over 500 participants in the Madrid demonstration.

In January, protests increased in frequency and attendance. In Burgos, many demonstrated nightly against the city’s plans to reduce the size of a major road in half, decreasing the amount of parking spaces.

Days later, protests spread to Madrid and several other cities, as the demonstrations in Burgos resonated with existing protest movements against austerity policies and government reform.

Turkey

The right of freedom of public assembly is guaranteed in Turkey’s constitution, but the government has used various measures to punish protesters.

In recent years, the Turkish government has used its anti-terrorism law to arrest those who participate in protests, including journalists. In December 2013, over 250 protesters were charged in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests. The charges against them include “taking part in illegal demonstrations” and “disrupting public services”, while some of those charged were also accused of having affiliations with terrorist groups.

Despite a large number of arrests the organization of demonstrations has persisted in Turkey, especially in light of recent government corruption scandals. On January 11, tens of thousands gathered in Ankara in protest of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government. More recently, hundreds of Turks gathered to protest against an internet censorship bill on January 18. Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons in efforts to disperse these crowds.

In October 2013, The Turkish government introduced a new regulation that would allow police to arrest those “who possess the risk of conducting a protest” for 12 to 24 hours without the approval of a judge. The suspect can be held for up to 24 hours without any court decision. Regulations also include fines for resisting arrest and damaging public property.

On October 30, this regulation was enforced: 35 “potential” protesters were arrested on suspicion of protesting during an economics congress meetings attended by President Abdullah Gul and PM Tayyip Erdogan. The 35 were reported to be from the Turkish Youth Union (TGB).

 Bahrain

In July 2013, the government of Bahrain implemented stricter penalties for protest. These penalties were added as amendments to the 2006 Law on the Protection of Society from Acts of Terrorism. The law bans sit-ins, rallies, and gatherings in the capital. In broad terms, the law deems many acts of protest as “acts of terrorism”.

While numbers of participants in demonstrations have decreased in comparison with the 2011 Bahraini uprising, anti-government protests continue in spite of the new penalties.

On December 8 many gathered to demand the release of political prisoners and chanted slogans against the ruling Al Khalifa family. Days later, tens of thousands marched throughout Bahrain to mark 1,000 days of protest since the 2011 uprising. The march ended without any incidents of violence. While many demonstrations have been isolated, in all of December 2013, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights claims there were 745 protests.