Malaysian police arrested about 20 opposition activists who tried to gather at parliament for a pro-democracy demonstration yesterday, thwarting the latest in a rare string of public protests.
Concerns also escalated that the government was clamping down on opposition activities after immigration officials briefly detained Anwar Ibrahim, one of the nation's top opposition figures, when he returned from an overseas trip yesterday.
The activists attempted to submit a protest note to parliament over a government-backed plan to amend a law that would extend the tenure of the election commission chief, whom the opposition claims is biased. Authorities say the accusation is baseless.
They headed to parliament from several directions, but encountered police roadblocks that caused traffic bottlenecks across Kuala Lumpur. It was not clear how many protesters were involved.
The attempt was the latest in a slew of public protests that have rocked Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's administration in recent weeks. Scores of activists have been charged with illegal assembly amid government warnings that such rallies would hurt national stability.
Anwar -- who has backed the protests -- was detained by authorities at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for 30 minutes when he returned from Turkey, the opposition People's Justice Party said.
An airport immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements, said Anwar was questioned because he had been placed on a police watch list.
"It is for security purpose, but he has been cleared," said the official, who declined to elaborate.
Authorities had warned the public against joining yesterday's protest, saying participants would face arrest. Malaysian laws forbid public gatherings of more than four people without a police permit.
Police backed by trucks mounted with water cannons, which held their fire, detained 12 activists heading toward parliament, said police official Ahmad Sofian Yassin. At least eight others were detained later in the area, opposition activists said.
"We are arrested for no apparent reason," said Hatta Ramli, an official in the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. "There is no chaos, no riot, nothing."
Five activists slipped into parliament while traveling in cars with opposition lawmakers. They handed copies of their protest note to legislators, but were arrested while leaving.
Opposition leaders had insisted it would have been a small demonstration, unlike a Nov. 10 rally that drew some 30,000 people demanding electoral transparency ahead of national polls widely expected early next year.
That rally was followed by a similarly large protest by minority ethnic Indians on Nov. 25 to complain of racial discrimination and economic deprivation.
Police also arrested P. Uthayakumar, a key ethnic Indian leader who organized the Nov. 25 rally, yesterday. He was charged with sedition because he allegedly published material on a Web site that claimed the government was pursuing "ethnic cleansing" policies to drive out Indians. Sedition is punishable by three years in prison.
Government authorities have rejected claims of racial discrimination and warned that street protests cannot be tolerated because they threaten public safety.
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