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Experts oppose gov't proposal to restrict right to assembly

Minister of Justice Antti Häkkänen said that limiting the right to spontaneous demonstrations is a safety issue.

Ihmiset osoittivat mieltään Helsingin Senaatintorilla Trumpin ja Putinin tapaamisen aikaan 16. heinäkuuta.
An anti-Trump and anti-Putin demonstration in Helsinki, summer 2018. Image: Marja Väänänen / Yle

Finland's government is planning new changes to the country's Assembly Act that would restrict spontaneous political demonstrations.

Current law states that demonstrators must inform the police of a rally six hours before it begins. The Ministry of Justice now wants to make the minimum notification window three days in length.

Constitutional law experts interviewed by Yle describe the draft bill as poorly prepared and restrictive to the right to assembly. Public law assistant professor Pauli Rautiainen from Tampere said that peaceful gatherings do not give cause to limit assembly law.

"Finnish demonstrations are non-violent and uneventful. We haven't had any serious problems with public protests," Rautiainen said.

The draft law is going through the consultation phase of the legislative process. Government said it wants the proposal to go through in August 2019 – even though a different government will be formed by then, with Parliamentary elections due in April 2019.

Justice Minister claims safety as top motive

Social media has changed the way demonstrations are planned and conducted due to the ease and speed with which platforms allow for simultaneous mass messaging.

This ease also applies to counter-demonstrations, such as the one that took place on Independence Day, 2017. The now banned neo-Nazi organisation Nordic Resistance Movement (PVL) and anti-immigration Soldiers of Odin group attended the same spaces as demonstrators protesting fascism.

Story continues after photo.

Uusnatsien järjestämä ”Kohti vapautta” mielenilmaus.
Neo-Nazis responded to anti-fascist demonstrations quickly in 2017. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Minister of Justice Antti Häkkänen said that the bill is justified by a concern for the safety of protesters, and that the six-hour window is too short to guarantee it.

"We intend this law to prevent conflicts between different protesting groups," Häkkänen said, referring to the availability of police officers to have enough time to safeguard the demonstrations.

Changing the law is not unconstitutional according to experts, but law professor Juha Lavapuro from Turku University said government should at least lengthen the minimum notification period incrementally, such as from six to 24 hours rather than straight to three days.

"Even that would obviously restrict the right to assembly. And saying that police are too busy to respond in six hours is not a justification for this bill proposal," Lavapuro said.

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