The human rights organization Amnesty International says Malaysian authorities are arbitrarily arresting and detaining scores of peaceful electoral reform protesters in the worse repression of free speech and freedom of assembly in recent years.
In the last few weeks, authorities in Malaysia have detained nearly 100 people for promoting a July 9 political rally in Kuala Lumpur. The protest is being planned by a coalition of opposition parties and activists calling itself "Bersih," which is the Malay-language word for "clean." The group, which includes Amnesty human rights activists, is calling for a more transparent voting process ahead of national elections expected to be held next year.
Malaysian officials have declared the rally illegal because, they say, the participants are trying to overthrow the government and support communism. Authorities have warned people not to attend.
Nora Murat is the director of Amnesty International in Malaysia and has been involved in organizing the rally. She says peaceful political rallies have been held the past and is surprised by the government's efforts to prevent this one from happening.
“We are really taken aback by the treatment that we have been received from the government and the police forces and I think yesterday our prime minister actually issued a statement saying that they are leaving it up to the police on whether or not and how they are going to use the emergency ordinance,” Murat said.
The recent arrests include 30 members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia, who were apprehended after police said they found leaflets and t-shirts promoting an outlawed communist party on their bus. The group has been charged with trying to wage war against Malaysia's constitutional monarch.
Malaysia's constitution guarantees its people freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. But Malaysia's home minister has threatened to invoke the internal security act against the organizers on the grounds of national security. Under this law suspects could be detained indefinitely without facing charges or trial.
Murat says Amnesty International is calling for Malaysia to allow the rally to take place and release all activists or charge them with a recognizably criminal offense.
“What we are requesting again is, and reminding the police authorities, it is their role actually to facilitate a peaceful demonstration and not to threaten us and telling us not to go out on the ninth,” Murat said.
Since independence in 1957, the government of Malaysia has been dominated by one political party, the United Malays National Organization or UMNO. In 2008, UMNO lost for the first time its two-thirds majority in parliament. Soon after, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on charges of sodomy. He maintains the charges are politically motivated. That trial is ongoing.