Demonstrators took to the streets of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur again yesterday to demand the release of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the resignation of the prime minister Najib Razak, and reform of the country’s judiciary.
They marched from the SOGO department store in the city centre to the KLCC area, where the famous Petronas twin towers are located. They chanted, played drums and sang freedom songs, and carried black flags and a banner calling on Najib to step down.
Police had warned the public not to attend the rally. The authorities continue to deem the weekly gatherings to be illegal. Police said there was no application from the organisers and warned that those involved could be arrested for unlawful assembly under Section 143 of the Penal Code.
Two activists and an assemblyman were arrested after last Saturday’s rally, but were later released on police bail, without charge.
Several lawyers have criticised the use of Section 143 against those assembling peacefully. The provision should only come into play, they say, when there is criminal force.
The Peaceful Assembly Act, introduced in 2012, imposes restrictions and conditions on matters such as the date, time, duration, place, and manner of an assembly.
In a landmark judgement in April last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that no penal sanctions could be imposed on organisers for failing to give police ten days’ notice of an upcoming rally.
The protest rallies began on February 14, four days after Malaysia’s federal court upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal last year, which found Anwar (pictured left) guilty of sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008, and sentenced the former deputy prime minister to five years in prison.
Anwar says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
The Kita Lawan (“We will fight”) youth movement – a loose coalition that was formed on February 15 – is the main mobilising force in the current protests, and is calling on Malaysians to join a mass rally scheduled for March 7.
MP defends right to rally
Yesterday, the vice-president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), Tian Chua (pictured left), who is the member of parliament for Batu, Kuala Lumpur, said people had the right to organise peaceful rallies that were not endangering people or obstructing property.
“The young people who are gathering are merely exercising their rights as citizens. They are not criminal and the police should leave them alone.”
He added: “I have been involved with public assembly since 1998 and we have struggled very hard. Finally we managed to pass a Peaceful Assembly Act in parliament. The police are not acting according to the spirit of the law when they arrest and intimidate people participating in peaceful assembly.”
Tian Chua, who has been arrested many times and imprisoned for two years, says recent events show that Malaysia is going backwards against the trend of the whole region, which, he says, has been experiencing gradual democratisation. “We still haven’t resolved some very basic issues such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.”
Tian Chua said it was important for citizens to rise up to defend their rights, not least when the judiciary was tainted. The MP says Anwar’s conviction is unjust. “It is a persecution; a political conspiracy to prevent Anwar from leading the opposition in its challenge to the government. This is clearly a plot to prevent the possibility of a regime change.”
Anwar has been imprisoned three times, Tian Chua says, and each time the prosecutions were politically motivated. In the case of the most recent conviction, Najib’s fingerprints are everywhere, Tian Chua alleges.
The public and even members of the prime minister’s own party are already calling on Najib to step down, Tian Chua says. “I don’t think Najib has any more legitimacy to stay on.”
The MP doesn’t think the small numbers at the recent rallies indicate a lack of public support for reform. He says an atmosphere of fear has been created by a series of arrests.
“We need to encourage people to overcome such fear. The government may be able to temporarily hold back the people for a while, but, in the long run, it cannot control the people’s discontent. Our call for reforms will continue.”
Tian Chua says those in power are themselves fearful. “This,” he said, “is why they are acting so irrationally.”
The MP laughs off the idea of the March 7 rally being held in a stadium, which is what the authorities have proposed. “It’s ridiculous that the police are telling people where they can assemble.”
PKR youth leader and state assemblyman Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (pictured left) also pointed to the fact that yesterday’s rally was a peaceful assembly. “The right to freely assemble is guaranteed under the constitution,” he said.
The assemblyman, who represents Seri Setia in Selangor, said that, on Friday, the rally organisers had what he described as a “cordial discussion” with the district police chief.
The rally organisers have rejected suggestions that the venue should be changed and say that, until further notice, the protests will continue to be held outside SOGO. “The public should not be scared,” Nik Nazmi said. “We are peacefully exercising our rights. We are not here to cause any problems to anyone.”
The assemblyman urged the police to focus on ensuring security and safety during the demonstration.
Activists undeterred by arrests
He was arrested at about 9.45 p.m, and was released on police bail at about 2 a.m. on Monday after giving a statement.
There was an attempt on Saturday to arrest the assemblyman after the protest rally, but the politician’s supporters wrested him away from police.
Just before the attempt to arrest Nik Nazmi, police detained the leading student activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim and the head of the PKR-backed Jingga 13 non-governmental organisation Fariz Musa, who has been arrested seven times since the Reformasi movement began in 1998.
The two were detained overnight, also under Section 143, and were released on police bail at about 11 a.m. on Sunday (February 22).
Fariz and Adam both spoke at yesterday’s demonstration, and joined the march to KLCC.
While he challenges the grounds for his arrest, Fariz says he is not afraid of being detained again and will continue to protest over Anwar’s jailing and the corruption in Malaysia, and to call for reform in the country.
Adam (pictured left) and other youth activists have also pledged to continue their struggle. “Here in Malaysia we have been under the same regime for 57 years and we were denied our victory in the last election,” Adam told Changing Times. “This government is an unpopular government.”
Malaysia, Adam says, is referred to as one of the best democracies in the world. “This is a claim made by Najib himself. It disgusts us to see the abuse of power being used to stop any political enemies of the government. We have to take a stand.
“Anwar Ibrahim being sent to jail is enough proof that whoever you are; no matter how big you are; as long as you go against UMNO/Barisan Nasional¹, you’ll be a victim of their abuse of power.”
Adam says Kita Lawan’s current focus is on mobilising the youth, but he believes that more widespread support will come soon. “It is impressive,” he said, “to see these young people taking a stand. They have a lot at stake; they can lose their jobs or their education, but they are willing to risk whatever they have to come here.”
Adam, who is a law student, has been expelled from university and has an appeal pending against a conviction and 12-month jail sentence for sedition. It is a price he is prepared to pay to bring about change, he says.
There have been a series of arrests since Anwar’s jailing. The Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general, S. Arutchelvan, was detained under the Sedition Act on February 19. Police confiscated his computer, modem, and mobile phone.
He was detained over a PSM statement that condemned the Federal Court for upholding Anwar’s conviction. The statement said the Malaysian courts were not independent and were politically driven.
Just after S. Arutchelvan was released on police bail on February 20, police arrested activist Lawrence Jayaraj, also under the Sedition Act, over comments he posted on his Facebook page. He was released on February 22.
On February 11, the cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was arrested for sedition over his criticism of the judiciary. A cartoon posted by Zunar on Twitter showed Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, as the judge in Anwar’s case. “Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence,” Zunar tweeted. “The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative.”
The government had previously pledged to repeal the 1948 Sedition Act, which critics say is being used to stifle dissent, but it later announced that the Act would be retained and expanded.
Petition for royal pardon
Anwar’s relatives have filed a petition for a royal pardon for the jailed politician.
Although the appeal for clemency will technically be decided upon by the Federal Territories Pardon Board, the king, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, will be the one who decides whether or not the petition is granted.
There is no set time for when the application must be heard. The petition could be decided upon in a matter of days, but could also remain unheard for years
Anwar remains the MP for Permatang Pauh until a decision on the petition for pardon is made. Nightly vigils continue outside the Sungai Buloh prison, where he is being held.
1) UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation) is the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Article updated at 22h, 01/03/2015.