15 November, 2007

Rights group urges Malaysia to probe use of force during peaceful Bersih rally

An international human rights group called Thursday for an investigation into why Malaysian police used tear gas and other force against a rare opposition-backed rally for electoral reforms.


The appeal by New York-based Human Rights Watch came as Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi praised the police action to break up the demonstration, which had been declared illegal. Malaysian law prohibits public gathering of five or more people without a police permit.

Saturday's rally was the biggest political demonstration in Malaysia in nearly a decade. Organizers said 30,000 people took part while the police put the number at 4,000. The last time so many people poured into the streets was in September 1998 when supporters of former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim protested his dismissal from the Cabinet and ruling party by then-leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Human Rights Watch said police kicked and beat at least seven people, and dozens of those detained were denied legal counsel. Police released all of those detained after taking their statements. Police did not immediately respond to these allegations.

National police chief Musa Hassan warned Malaysians on Wednesday they face tougher action if they take part in future rallies.

A statement by Human Rights Watch said the government should set up an independent commission to probe the use of chemical-laced water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. Police also detained 245 people.

"If there was any doubt that the prime minister is more worried about political power than political rights, it was washed away with his defense of police actions against the marchers," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Abdullah's remark was "as good as saying outright that he condoned violence against political critics. He should rectify this impression by immediately calling for a Royal Commission to independently examine the facts," he said.

The government did not immediately respond to the statement but Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the police action, saying Wednesday they used tear gas and water cannon "only after their repeated warnings to the crowd to disperse were ignored."

He said the police were simply enforcing the law, and the use of force was "their last option."

The rally was organized by some 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition parties, which demanded the removal of phantom voters from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, access to state-controlled media by all political parties, and an end to vote-buying and other irregularities.

The government has denied election irregularities, saying electoral rolls have been cleaned up.

Najib also said that elections in Malaysia are transparent, and that if the elections were rigged, the opposition would not win any seats at all. Malaysia's Parliament is dominated by the ruling National Front coalition while opposition parties make up a small minority.(IHT)

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