Coronation crackdown: It couldn’t happen here…could it?

The heavy-handed treatment of anti-monarchy protesters at King Charles III’s ceremony is ominous

We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail. 

This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go. 

Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here. 

‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’

I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state? 

As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…

Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.

Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus

‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’

After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.

When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.

The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.

 Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong 

‘Continue standing up for your voice’

Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.

Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.

The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.

The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.

Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.

“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away. 

Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary

Crown Confidential: Access to Historical Records about the Royal Family

]Are the British Royal Family the real enemies of history? Over the decades they have actively suppressed uncomfortable narratives about themselves. Hundreds of files in the national and royal archives remain inaccessible to the general public, files that many would argue are of public interest. The result? Holes in our country’s history.

These are some of the conclusions from the team at the magazine Index on Censorship, who carried out an investigation into royal historical censorship for their Winter issue. As part of the launch of the magazine, a panel of speakers will discuss the findings alongside their experiences of trying to access historical archives. This will be a lively discussion and one with heightened importance following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September and ahead of the coronation of Charles III in the spring.

Speaking on the panel will be:

The event will be chaired by Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship.

When: Wednesday , 5:30pm – 7:00pm

Where: Woburn Suite, G22/26, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Tickets: Free, advance booking essential

“Imagine the conversation between Bolsonaro and Erdogan”

The United Kingdom is in a period of national mourning, marking the passing of our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Global media has been transfixed, reporting on the minutiae of every aspect of the ascension of the new monarch and the commemoration of our former head of state. While the pageantry has been consuming, the constitutional process addictive (yes I am an addict) and the public grief tangible – the traditions and formalities have also highlighted challenges in British and global society – especially with regards to freedom of expression.

We have witnessed people being arrested for protesting against the monarchy. While the protests could be considered distasteful – I certainly think they are – that doesn’t mean that they are illegal and that the police should move against them. Public protest is a legitimate campaigning tool and is protected in British law. As ever, no one has the right not to be offended. And protest is, by its very nature, disruptive, challenging and typically at odds with the status quo. It is therefore all the more important that the right to peacefully protest is protected.

While I was appalled to see the arrests, I have been heartened in recent days at the almost universal condemnation of the actions of the police and the statements of support for freedom of expression and protest in the UK, from across the political system.

What this chapter has confirmed is that democracies, great and small, need to be constantly vigilant against threats to our core human rights which can so easily be undermined. This week our right to freedom of expression and the right to protest was threatened and the immediate response was a universal defence. Something we should cherish and celebrate because it won’t be long before we need to utilise our collective rights to free speech – again.

Which brings me onto the need to protest and what that can look like, even on the bleakest of days. On Monday, the largest state funeral of my lifetime is being held in London. Over 2,000 dignitaries are expected to attend the funeral of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey. The heads of state of Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar were not invited given current diplomatic “tensions”. While I completely welcome their exclusion from the global club of acceptability, it does highlight who was deemed acceptable to invite.

Representatives from China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, North Korea and Sri Lanka will all be in attendance, all of whom have shown a complete disregard for some of the core human rights that so many of us hold dear. Can you imagine the conversation between Bolsonaro and Erdogan?  Or the ambassador to Iran and the vice president of China?

While I truly believe that no one should picket a funeral – the very idea is abhorrent to me – that doesn’t mean that there are no other ways of protesting against the actions of repressive regimes and their leadership, who will be in the UK in the coming days. In fact the British Parliament has shown us the way – by banning representatives of the Chinese Communist Party from attending the lying in state of Her Majesty – as a protest at the sanctions currently imposed on British parliamentarians for their exposure of the acts of genocide happening against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. This was absolutely the right thing to do and I applaud the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon Lindsay Hoyle MP, for taking such a stance.

Effective protest needs to be imaginative, relevant and take people with you – highlighting the core values that we share and why others are a threat to them. It can be private or public. It can tell a story or mark a moment. But ultimately successful protests can lead to real change. Even if it takes decades. Which is why we will defend, cherish and promote the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression in every corner of the planet, as a real vehicle for delivering progressive change.

Malaysian professor resigns after threatened for criticising monarchy

An outspoken professor of constitutional law has resigned his post in the university after being investigated by police and received death threat for his comments about the Malaysian constitutional monarchy.

“I have decided to resign due to the pressure, which makes it impossible to fulfill the ideals of being an academic,” Professor Abdul-Aziz Bari said in an email interview. “The pressure on my [academic] friends is also part of the reason as I do not want to get them into trouble.”

He said his last day as the law lecturer of the International Islamic University Malaysia (Universiti Islam Antarabangsa- UIA) will be on 31 December.

In early October, he commented that it was “unusual and inconsistent” for the Selangor state’s Sultan, Sharafuddin Idris Shah to come out in defence of the state’s religious department (Selangor Islamic Affairs Department- JAIS), which has come under fire for raiding a church allegedly converting Muslims. Under Malaysia’s law, proselytising Muslims is prohibited. The Sultan had admitted that although the department had evidence of proselytising occurring at the raided church, it did not warrant legal prosecution.

The professor’s comment was deemed to insult the monarchy by Malay ethno-religious pressure groups and he was attacked by a daily newspaper, Utusan Malaysia, owned by the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). A senator from UMNO lodged a police report against him. Following the controversy, the university suspended Bari, but the move provoked public outcry. Activists, opposition law makers and academics criticised the suspension as a violation of academic freedom. On 24 October, the university lifted the suspension after hundreds of university students reportedly staged a demonstration against the decision.

Discussion of the role of the monarchy remains a sensitive topic in Malaysia, nine of its thirteen states are ruled by Sultans, while the remaining four have a Yang Dipertua (Head of State). The Federal Constitution and the Sedition Act 1948 outlaw questioning the position of the monarchy, and both have been exploited by politicians and right-wing groups to condemn any discussion of the role of royalty. Bari, who has written extensively on monarchy and politics, argued in an 12 October article published on news website Malaysiakini that criticism of the monarchy is permitted under Malay law — the line is crossed when someone calls for its abolision. After the article was published, both Malaysiakini and Bari were questioned by the Communications and Multimedia Commission, the regulator of electronic and online sector

On 29 October, he received a bullet along with a warning in the post. In early November, the Higher Education Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin said the Professor should resign. By late November Bari found himself in deeper controversy, after the Sultan expressed his disapproval of comments Bari made on another issue. Bari said that an earlier amendment to the state enactment exempted the accounts of the state religious council (Selangor Islamic Affairs Council-Mais) and the Selangor Zakat Board from audit by the national Audit-General. But he said that given the limited access to the documents of the amendment, he could have been mistaken in his comments and was willing meet the Sultan to clear the air.

Although the police have completed investigation of his case, Bari remains concerned about what will happen to him.

“I’m worried because I’m not informed of what the police will do, they could charge me” he said.