Malaysian Protesters Clash With Riot Police


Malaysian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Saturday in clashes with several thousand anti-government demonstrators who gathered to protest a long-standing law allowing detention without trial, raising the stakes in a long-running struggle for political power in the country.

The law – known as the Internal Security Act – enables Malaysian authorities to detain indefinitely persons they consider to be security risks. In the past, al-Qaeda linked terrorists have been held under the provision. But opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and human rights activists say the law is also used to stifle dissent in Malaysia, where the National Front coalition has ruled the country without interruption since independence from Britain in 1957.


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Malaysian anti-riot police fire tear gas shells to disperse demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur on August 1, 2009.

Last year, the law was used to detain a blogger, a journalist and members of a Hindu rights activist group.

As many as 10,000 protesters converged in the center of Malaysia's main city just after 2 pm on Saturday, and prepared to march toward the national palace where they intended to hand in a petition to the country's constitutional monarch to appeal the security law. Chants of "Reformasi" — the Malaysian term for political reform — echoed around the narrow streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur as police fired tear gas and chemical-laced water to break up the protesters

Police used batons to charge into groups of demonstrators, scuffling with many of them. Some protesters took refuge in a nearby department store to evade arrest, while other businesses pulled down their shutters as concerns about violence grew.

Witnesses saw police dragging detainees into waiting vans, sometimes kicking and screaming. Inspector General of Police Musa Haji Hassan said in a statement that police arrested 310 protesters because the rally hadn't been granted a permit. "Because of their defiance, police were left not no choice but to disperse them by spraying tear gas and throwing water at the demonstrators," Mr. Musa said.

"The police are really brutal," Mr. Anwar, the opposition leader, told reporters attending the protest, stressing that the crackdown underscored the government's unwillingness to tolerate any dissent. Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, said the protesters had been warned not to rally, local media reported, and said he had received many complaints about traffic disruptions in the area. He said he would leave it to the police to determine what to do with the people detained during the protest.

James Chin, a political science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia's Monash University, said the protest was intended to "send a strong signal to the rest of the world that nothing has changed in Malaysia" in years.

Indeed, the political tension pervading the country seems in many ways to be a retread of what happened a decade ago, when Mr. Anwar, then a deputy prime minister, was fired from the government for questioning its economic policies and then convicted for allegedly sodomizing two male aides – a crime in this mostly Muslim country. Last year, with the opposition making its largest ever election gains, Mr. Anwar was again charged with sodomizing a man who once worked in his office.

Mr. Anwar says he is innocent in both cases, saying the charges were fabricated to destroy his political career. Mr. Anwar's earlier conviction was quashed after a successful appeal in 2004, enabling the 62-year-old grandfather to return to politics. Initial trial proceedings in the latest case began in July and are likely to drag on for several months.

Mr. Najib, the prime minister, has promised to consider amending the Internal Security Act, and one of his first acts on becoming prime minister in April was to release a dozen detainees who were being held under the law. He has also denied playing any role in instigating the legal case against Mr. Anwar.

Other government officials and political activists have said the internal security law is needed to combat terrorism and maintain social order in this racially-diverse nation of 27 million people, which is home to large ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities as well as the majority Muslim Malay population.