A massive protest highlighting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged involvement in a corruption scandal was to go ahead Saturday in Kuala Lumpur despite the arrest of the leader of the movement and a dozen politicians and activists, organizers said.
The leader of a pro-government group that was planning a simultaneous counter-protest in the Malaysian capital was also arrested early Saturday (local time).
Jamal Md Yunos, leader of the so-called Red Shirts, was picked up at 1:30 a.m. in Shah Alam, Selangor state, and taken to a local police station, according to his group, which is aligned with Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The reason for Jamal’s arrest was not immediately known.
Bersih Chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah was being investigated for alleged activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy,” following her Friday afternoon arrest at the Bersih offices in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, representatives of her group said in a statement.
Mandeep Singh, the manager of Bersih’s secretariat, was also arrested, and was being investigated under Section 147 of the country’s criminal code that touches on rioting, after police raided the coalition’s offices, Bersih officials said.
“BERSIH 5 will go on as planned and we hope that this heavy-handed action on the part of the authorities will spur Malaysians into coming down to the streets tomorrow not just to demand for institutional reforms but to protest injustices happening in the country,” their statement said.
Bersih officials condemned the raid and the arrests “as a blatant abuse of power and pure harassment,” adding that “no warrant or legitimate reason for the raid and arrests could be provided.”
Chin and Singh were held at jails in the Kuala Lumpur area overnight and were to be produced in a court on Saturday, where police will seek to remand them, Melissa Sasidran, a lawyer for the two, told BenarNews.
“We are waiting for the update from the police on the matter,” she said.
Late Friday, Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Amar Singh Ishar Singh and Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar did not respond to requests from BenarNews seeking information about the arrests.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized Friday’s arrests of Chin, Singh and others associated with the Bersih rally.
“These arrests on trumped up charges are all about trying to decapitate the Bersih 5 movement on the eve of the rally by making sure that key leaders will be in jail rather than on the street tomorrow,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, told BenarNews via email.
“If anything is undermining parliamentary democracy, it’s been the Malaysian government’s rights abusing actions to block people from exercising their rights to free expression and public assembly, and criminalizing those who continue to demand reform and accountability from government leaders.”
Malaysiakini editor charged
According to a list published by online news portal Malaysiakini, the arrestees included Anthony Loke, an MP with the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), Ronny Liu, a DAP activist and former Selangor Exco member, and S. Arutchelvan, a committee member of Malaysia’s Socialist Party (PSM).
Malaysiakini identified one of the other arrestees as Razali Zakaria, a member of the Red Shirts. According to the New Straits Times Online, another Red-Shirt activist, Ariffin Abu Bakar (alias Ayah Ipin Keramat) was among those into custody on Friday.
Earlier Friday, the editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini was charged with four counts of violating the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 for airing videos about a corruption scandal surrounding Najib linked to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Editor Steven Gan pleaded not guilty to the charges at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court on Friday.
‘Their struggle is false’
The 1MDB scandal is at the heart of the rally by Bersih, a grassroots coalition of NGOs that advocate transparency in government and free and fair elections.
Najib has denied allegations that he personally benefitted from nearly U.S. $700 million in 1MDB-linked money that was deposited into his private bank accounts.
On Thursday, Khalid had declared both the Bersih and Red-Shirt rallies illegal, and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi warned the groups to cancel their planned demonstrations.
According to state news agency Bernama, Khalid said that both of the planned rallies “did not meet legal provisions, especially the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.”
The authorities were planning to deploy 7,000 police around Saturday’s rallies and were preparing to crack down on any outbreaks of violence between the Red Shirts and the yellow-shirted Bersih activists, according to the New Straits Times.
On his personal website, the prime minister lashed out Friday at Bersih, which has organized four other massive rallies in Kuala Lumpur, with the first taking place in November 2007.
“The opposition parties use an NGO, which purportedly does not favor any political party and fights corruption, to pressure the government through rallies,” he said in a blog post.
“Is it not very clear that their struggle is false and the rally is just a movement of opposition parties hiding behind a so-called non-partisan NGO to fight a government elected by the people?” Najib added.