Police arrest 1 600 in Malaysia protest
Kuala Lumpur - Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon and made over 1 600 arrests on Saturday during clashes with protesters who defied government warnings to rally in the capital for electoral reform.
Leaders of opposition parties were among those detained during a massive security operation but it failed to thwart the outlawed demonstration which saw 50 000 people take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, according to organisers.
With elections expected to be called early next year, demonstrators were demanding changes to the voting process including eradication of vote buying and prevention of irregularities which they say marred previous polls.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently on trial accused of sodomy, told AFP that he suffered bruising to his head and a cut on his leg after he was knocked down in the pandemonium when police fired tear gas.
"They shot directly [at us]... I could hardly breathe and stand up at the time," the former deputy prime minister said from a hospital bed, where the 62-year-old said he will be kept in overnight and was on pain killers.
"I considered it [the demonstration] a success despite the fact that they [police] were really brutal in their action," added a frail-looking Anwar, who says the lurid accusations against him are politically motivated.
Bersih, the broad coalition that organised the rare protest, wants to see the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, equal access to the media for all parties and the cleaning-up of electoral rolls.
The opposition led by Anwar made major gains in 2008 elections against the ruling coalition but said it would have done better - potentially threatening the Barisan Nasional's half-century rule - if voting had been more fair.
Saturday's rally was Malaysia's biggest street protest since 2007, when the opposition led a demonstration in the capital also demanding electoral reforms.
At the height of the latest action, protesters faced baton-wielding riot police in front of a bus station, retreating at times and regrouping to push back police lines in a cat-and-mouse confrontation in heavy downpours.
Some demonstrators fought back by picking up tear gas canisters which they lobbed at police, AFP reporters said. Many of the protesters shouted "Reformasi!" (Reforms), "God is great" and "Long Live the People."
But police lines held firm and the protesters - who numbered 10 000 in total, police said - failed to break through to march to a stadium and to the king's palace to hand over a memorandum detailing their demands.
"Why is the government trying to intimidate citizens?" said Mohamad Manij Abdullah, 50, a businessman who joined the rally.
"We are only trying to reform elections and have a free and fair government," he told AFP.
An official police Facebook page said 1 667 people had been arrested, including 16 children who were brought along by their families, although many were expected to be released on bail.
Among those detained were protest leader Ambiga Sreenivasan and Maria Chin Abdullah. Ambiga, former head of the Malaysia Bar Council, told AFP she was freed later on Saturday without being charged.
Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), the country's largest opposition grouping, was also arrested.
The protesters had rallied in several areas of the city after a police lockdown rendered the streets eerily quiet in some parts.
Downtown Kuala Lumpur, normally a hive of activity on weekends, was deserted as major roads into the commercial and tourist district were sealed off.
Mukhriz Mahathir, a leading member of the powerful United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), told AFP the government had to act to prevent anarchy.
"We cannot allow a minority group to protest and stir trouble in the country," he said, accusing protesters of provoking the police into firing tear gas "so that they can accuse the government of being heavy handed."
UMNO is the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Amnesty International criticised the government for the crackdown and urged the authorities to release those arrested and "respect basic freedom of assembly."
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) also denounced the arrests.