Malaysian police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on protesters yesterday as tens of thousands defied a government ban and rallied in the capital to call for clean and fair elections.
Leading human rights group Suaram said 23 demonstrators were arrested at the rally, which took place despite police efforts to close down the city center with roadblocks.
Some 30,000 protesters eventually massed outside Malaysia's royal palace, led by opposition leaders including dissident former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, as they faced off against hundreds of riot police.
Earlier at a downtown mosque that served as a meeting point for protesters, tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse a large crowd, police and demonstrators said.
"Police detained several people and there was use of water canons and tear gas," a senior police officer said.
Syed Hussein Ali, the vice-president of Anwar's party Keadilan, said he was caught up in the chaos outside the Jamek Mosque.
"I was hit two times by tear gas and water cannons. The police were clearly trying to stop the crowd and it was very difficult for us to carry on with the march, but we did," he said.
The demonstrators, an alliance of opposition parties and civil society groups, regrouped and marched to the palace in the driving rain, chanting "election reform" and "justice."
"The Malaysian public must be allowed to express their opinions and views," parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said at the palace gates before delivering a petition to the king. "It is not fair for the government not to issue a permit for this rally to take place as it is only the voice of the people being expressed here."
New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the government's stance on the mass rally, which Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had vowed to suppress and police had threatened to arrest protesters.
"If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. The way the system works now, only the ruling coalition can get its messages out," it said.
Human Rights Watch said Malaysian elections have been sullied by vote-buying, the use of public resources by the ruling parties and accusations of bias against the Election Commission.
Anwar, who was heir apparent to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad until 1998 when he was sacked and jailed for sodomy and corruption, was only allowed to make brief remarks at the rally.
He yelled out his slogan of "reformasi" or "reform" and thanked the crowd for coming.
"We want free and fair elections and clearly Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his Cabinet are complicit to the crime of cheating Malaysians from having free and fair elections," he said.
Anwar's sodomy conviction has been overturned but the corruption verdict stands, barring him from standing for public office until next April. Elections are expected to be held early next year.