Thousands of people marched through central Kuala Lumpur yesterday calling for the release of Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the resignation of the prime minister Najib Razak, and reform of Malaysia’s judiciary.
The organisers estimated the crowd to number more than 10,000 people. Only a few hundred people had turned out for the rallies on the past three Saturdays since Anwar was jailed.
Pro-Anwar demonstrations were also scheduled to be held in numerous cities around the world. They included London and Berlin, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, Taipei, New York, Washington and Chicago, Shanghai, Beijing, and Doha.
On February 10, 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, who is de-facto leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
There was a light police presence at the KL demonstration, but the PKR Kelana Jaya youth chief, Saifullah Zulkifli, was arrested after the rally, under Section 143 of the Penal Code, and was taken to the Jinjang lock-up for questioning. He was accused of unlawful assembly.
“The people have had enough.”
Youth activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim, who was arrested at the end of one of last month’s rallies for alleged unlawful assembly, said he felt overwhelmed by yesterday’s show of support. Yesterday’s message, he said, was the same message protesters had been conveying over the past few weeks. “The message has been the same since 1998. People want Barisan Nasional out from the government. We have had enough.”
It is awareness, anger, and frustration – and a love for Malaysia – that is bringing people out onto the streets, Adam says. “They want to do something. They don’t want to sit back at home and wait for the change to happen. They want to make the change happen.”
The work of youth activists over the past three weeks is now paying off, Adam says. “People see the effort and have faith again in us. That’s what brings the people here today. This is the result of the sacrifice made by everyone.”
The fight to bring about reform would continue, Adam said. “You will see more demonstrations after this, I can assure you.” The older generation of people who were involved in the 1998 Reformasi (Reform) movement are now coming out on the streets again, Adam says.
PKR youth leader and Selangor state assemblyman Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who was also arrested last month for alleged unlawful assembly, said yesterday’s rally was a success and the turn-out was much bigger than the organisers had expected. He considered 10,000 to be a conservative estimate. “I think the message is very clear that the people are with us.”
The conduct at yesterday’s rally, he said, had proved to police that the assemblies could be peaceful and should be allowed to continue.
The assemblyman told the crowd that Najib was the worst and the weakest prime minister in the history of Malaysia. “If we continue to be consistent in gathering and speaking up against Najib, we can topple him; we can get him to resign.”
Nik Nazmi has been asked to report to the Dang Wangi police station at 10 a.m. this morning and says he will be going there with a lawyer.
Lawyers criticise use of the Penal Code against protesters
The arrests of Nik Nazmi, Adam, and the head of the PKR-backed Jingga 13 non-governmental organisation Fariz Musa, on February 21 were made under under Section 143.
Adam and Fariz were held overnight in the Jingang lock-up, then were released on police bail, but Nik Nazmi, who was detained on February 22, was released after about four hours. None of the three have been charged. Adam, however, is in the throes of an appeal against a conviction and 12-month jail sentence for sedition.
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.
Politicians pledge further protests
The MP for Batu, Tian Chua, said yesterday that there would be more rallies in the future. “Today,” he said, is just the beginning.”
Secretary-general of the Malaysian Socialist Party, S. Arutchelvan, who was arrested in February for alleged sedition, commented on the high turnout at yesterday’s rally: “The numbers today are good. I think a lot of people are very frustrated with the whole system and I think that it’s important to show Anwar and especially to show Najib that the people are still out here in spite of this assembly being declared illegal by the government.
“We are in very difficult times in this country. The minimum wage has not gone up, and the government plans to introduce GST; there are serious economic problems.
“This is going to be a long struggle and it’s not going to be an easy road, but, at the end of the day, we will win.”
Arutchelvan (pictured left) was detained because of a party statement that said Anwar’s conviction was politically motivated. “And they say that is seditious,” he said. “If I am seditious, then millions of people in this country and all over the world are also seditious.”
When arresting S. Arutchelvan, police confiscated his computer, modem, and mobile phone. He was released on police bail on February 20.
Arutchelvan praised the courage of the people who came out to protest yesterday, given that there had been so many recent arrests and police had warned people not to join the rally.
Police wanted yesterday’s rally to be held in a stadium, but the organisers rejected that idea.
PKR secretary-general Rafizi Ramli tweeted his thanks to those involved in yesterday’s protest and said the authorities would underplay the turnout. “If UMNO counts (the turnout), a few zeros will disappear,” he tweeted. “That’s why the 10,000 will become 100.”
UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation) is the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The party has been in power for the past 57 years.
Protesters march to twin towers
Demonstrators gathered at three points in central KL, converged at the SOGO department store, then marched, undeterred by rain, to the KLCC, where the Petronas twin towers are located.
Speeches were given at SOGO by Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is the PKR president and the Selangor state assembly member for Kajang, and his eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is the MP for Lembah Pantai.
Wan Azizah told the crowd she would pass on the message to Anwar that the people had not forgotten him. “We will never surrender,” she said.
Other speakers yesterday included Adam and Fariz, Selangor state assemblyman Saari Sungib, MP and lawyer William Leong Jee Keen, former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, the youth chief of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, Suhaizan Kaiat, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) youth chief Teo Kok Seong. National literary laureate A. Samad Said was present at the protest.
Teo Kok Seong said the demonstrators had created history and the protest had united the different races in Malaysia. “We walked together for freedom, for justice, for Anwar, and for our country.”
There were legal monitors from Malaysia’s human rights commission and the Bar Council, and from abroad, at yesterday’s rally and an emergency legal team was on hand to apply for bail in the case of any arrests.
Protesters, mostly dressed in black, carried black flags, an effigy of Najib, and banners with such messages as “When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a duty” and “Undur, Najib, undur” (Resign, Najib, resign).
The demonstrators highlighted the government corruption in Malaysia. They chanted Reformasi, Bebas Anwar (Free Anwar), Kita Lawan (We fight), Hidup rakyat (Long live the people), and Undur Najib, and sang freedom songs.
The protesters drove four-wheel drive vehicles right up in front of the KLCC shopping centre, where the rally continued on the concourse until just after 6 p.m.
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.
He is currently being held in a hospital cell at the Sungai Buloh prison. Conditions there are better than they were in the main area of the jail, where he was in a bare cell with just a two inch-thick foam mattress on the floor, a bucket for bathing, and a squat toilet.
His lawyers said the conditions in which he was being held originally were aggravating his spine and back condition and might pose a grave threat to his health.
Weekly Saturday afternoon protest rallies are due to continue in front of SOGO and another mass rally is planned for Labour Day on May 1.