04/11/2012 01:55 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Using highway safety code to arrest protesters bad for democracy: Rights group

MONTREAL - Quebec police are using the province's highway safety code to launch unjust crackdowns on protest marches, a civil rights group said Wednesday.

It said police are scaring off protesters by doling out fines of nearly $500 by invoking a provision that forbids obstruction of traffic in any way on a public highway.

The practice was first used in March 2011, when Montreal police arrested and fined more than 200 anti-police brutality protesters.

To coincide with court appearances where some of the protesters were preparing legal battles against the tickets, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Wednesday it is bad for democracy for police to use the highway code in such a manner.

Asociation general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers told a news conference that mass arrests are not appropriate in Quebec, just as they weren't during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010.

Des Rosiers said using the safety code is unique to Quebec, but the notion of invoking an obscure bylaw or legislation in the wrong context is not.

Police were criticized for their actions in Toronto, where more than 1,000 people were arrested. Many were never charged.

"They (the police) will be chastised here again in Quebec," Des Rosiers said.

"It may take two years of fighting in the courts but eventually people will come to say you can't have a democracy that doesn't recognize that the right to peaceful assembly is essential."

Since the March 2011 anti-brutality demonstration, many fines have been handed down during recent student protests against tuition hikes.

Blandine Juchs, one of those arrested and fined last year, wondered on Wednesday how one can hold a demonstration without blocking traffic.

"Each case is unique and there are sorts of consideration for each, but there is a general tendency behind this of criminalizing political action," Juchs said.

Calls seeking comment from police and the Quebec Public Security Department weren't immediately returned on Wednesday, but police forces have defended their actions and said it will be zero tolerance for protesters blocking traffic.

In one incident on March 20, nearly 100 students were rounded up by provincial police and fined $494 each for blocking Montreal's perennially busy Champlain Bridge. There have been other incidents in Sherbrooke and Quebec City.

Des Rosiers said it's not enough for police to say protests are a public disturbance.

"Democracy demands some disturbance, it demands the ability of people to express what they think and say," she said.

"The highway safety code was not passed for the purposes of regulating peaceful protest. It does not appropriately balance the constitutional protection and other interests that might be at stake."

One student organization said it is preoccupied by the use of the code in recent months and what it views as the criminalization of political dissidence.

"We can definitely see that people are more repressed when they try to demonstrate," said Richard-Alexandre Laniel, a spokesman for CLASSE, one of the major organizing groups.