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Students challenge Quebec anti-protest law

26 may 2012, 17:08
Students stage a protest against tuition fee increases. ©AFP
Students stage a protest against tuition fee increases. ©AFP
Quebec students, trade unions and community groups on Friday challenged a new law regulating demonstrations after months of protests, and recent mass arrests, AFP reports.

The emergency measure was passed on May 18 in the wake of clashes between police and students fighting an 82 percent hike in tuition at universities in the Canadian province.

Opponents of the law say it breaches their rights of assembly and free expression.

"It's the biggest constitutional crisis in Quebec because of the number of people affected," student leader Leo Bureau-Blouin said outside the Montreal courthouse.

Nearly 140 representatives from 25 student, environmental and community groups as well as trade unions and artists asked the Quebec Superior Court to overturn the law.

"This vile law effectively muzzles, crushes, controls and dominates the student movement as well as other groups that wish to publicly express themselves," they said in a joint statement.

Petitions to suspend the law could be considered as early as Wednesday, and to quash it in early June, student leaders said.

The government reacted by accusing the students of hypocrisy.

"It's interesting that (the lawsuit) comes from an association that has itself not given a damn about the courts' rulings and is now seeking redress from them," Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said, alluding to the militant student group CLASSE.

The government has accused CLASSE of inciting violence and mayhem that triggered vandalism and clashes with police in Montreal, and of ignoring injunctions against protests at schools.

Eventually, Canada's Supreme Court could be asked to consider whether the law requiring activists to notify police ahead of demonstrations is constitutional.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest's centrist government has said the law protects the rights of students who want to attend classes but are being prevented by pickets outside universities, by simply outlining where and when protests may occur.

Since it was adopted, more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested during nightly unrest -- but police opted to apply municipal bylaws already on the books instead of the new emergency measure to stop people, wary that it could be overturned in court.

Quebecers have taken to the streets by the thousands each night, loudly hammering on pots and pans to express their distaste for the special law they say is draconian.

The so-called saucepan movement was proposed by a professor a week ago on Facebook, echoing similar protests in Chile, aiming to get around restrictions on demonstrations.

Next week, the government is expected to meet with student groups in what has been described as a last-ditch effort to resolve the unrest before the start of summer festivals and a Grand Prix racing event in Montreal.

By Jacques Lemieux

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