KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - A day after a mass anti-government rally it organized, the Malaysian electoral reform group Bersih voiced concern Sunday over the arrest of its chairwoman under a security law meant for terrorists and the detention of more than a dozen people.
Police say 15,500 protesters took to Kuala Lumpur’s streets Saturday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over a financial scandal. Bersih estimated the crowd at 120,000.
Bersih official Wong Chin Huat said the security sweep and chairwoman Maria Chin’s detention without trial under the Security Offences Act were vindictive and aimed at silencing dissent.
“The crackdown shows that Najib is feeling insecure. It is a sign of panic,” Wong told The Associated Press Sunday. “But the people have sent a clear message. They want reforms and they want Najib to step down.”
Leader held on terrorist law
Police raided Bersih’s office Friday and took Chin in for investigations into “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” Chin was formally detained Saturday under the security law and can be held without trial for 28 days.
Bersih said on Facebook that its lawyers finally met Chin Sunday after having no access to her since she was detained.
The group said Chin was being held in solitary confinement in a small cell with no windows and two small lightbulbs. It said Chin was not given any bed or pillow, and had just the cement floor and a slab of wood.
One of Bersih’s lawyers, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, said by phone that the law has been abused to punish Chin. If convicted, she said Chin faces up to 15 years in jail.
Apart from Chin, Fadiah said 15 other politicians and activists, including three Bersih officials, have also been detained.
Amnesty International weighs in
Prime Minister Najib, who is attending an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru, was quoted by Malaysian national news agency Bernama as saying that Saturday’s rally calling for him to step down was unconstitutional and that Malaysians were fed up with demonstrations.
“We, Malaysians, must uphold the principle of the rule of law. Otherwise there will be chaos in the country and the people will suffer,” said Najib, who earlier had slammed Bersih rallies as a tool for the opposition to unseat the government.
Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of the activists, describing them as prisoners of conscience. Instead of investigating allegations of corruption and rights abuses, the government is “silencing people for raising these concerns,” the group said.