More than two dozen protesters, including a leading human rights activist and opposition lawmakers, have been detained in Malaysia in what one lawyer yesterday said was an attempt to silence government critics.
The demonstrators were arrested late on Friday following a May Day rally that drew thousands to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, their lawyers said. Among those arrested was Ambiga Sreenevasan, a widely respected human rights activist and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, who campaigns for democratic and electoral reforms.
Her lawyer N. Surendran said Ambiga was being detained for sedition and for unlawful assembly with an intention to overthrow the government.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “These arrests are scare tactics by the police to deter people from opposing the government.”
He added that the police yesterday would seek to extend Ambiga’s detention. Human Rights Watch deputy director Phil Robertson called her arrest “absolutely outrageous,” adding that “speaking and attending a rally is not a crime, let her go unconditionally.”
Among other prominent figures arrested were the leader of the Socialist Party of Malaysia and a senior lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party.
Local media reported that opposition People’s Justice Party secretary-general Rafizi Ramli was also arrested yesterday.
“This wave of arrests should raise alarm bells among international friends of Malaysia about just how far the powers that be in Putrajaya are dragging the country off the path of democratic, rights-respecting governance,” Robertson said in a statement.
Friday’s protest saw thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets despite sweltering tropical heat, mostly to demand an end to a recently implemented goods and services tax.
Malaysia has seen a wave of arrests of government critics under the Sedition Act, although few have actually been jailed.
Analysts view the blitz as a bid by the long-ruling government to silence adversaries as it loses ground to the reform-minded opposition.
Tightening the screws, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government recently pushed through even tougher sedition penalties and an anti-terrorism bill that allows detention without judicial review.
Amnesty International said the moves were turning Malaysia into a “human rights black hole.”
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