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Atmosphere "euphoric" despite arrests of protesters

As expected, the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur demanding electoral reform were met with police violence and arrests, report the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and ARTICLE 19. But the mood in Malaysia is "euphoric", says CIJ: the rally, defying a government ban, went down as the largest in Malaysian history.

More than 1,600 were arrested on 9 July, and some had tear gas and water guns fired directly at them. Baton-wielding riot police used force to prevent the crowds from marching towards Stadium Merdeka; the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (popularly known as Bersih 2.0) initially agreed to hold the protest at the stadium following concerns from the authorities that a street protest could turn into a riot, but they decided to resume the march after police refused to provide the necessary permit.

"By taking such a heavy-handed action against civil society activists calling for the cause of clean and fair elections, the Malaysian government is preventing legitimate political expression and seriously setting back democracy in Malaysia," said ARTICLE 19.

All protesters arrested during the rally were released without charge.

According to Amnesty International, one protester, 56-year-old Baharuddin Ahmad, collapsed near the landmark Petronas Towers while fleeing teargas and was pronounced dead later in hospital. Amnesty is calling on the authorities to investigate claims that police failed to provide proper assistance to Ahmad before his death, including reports that an ambulance arrived 90 minutes after he collapsed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was injured after a canister was fired in his direction, and Khalid Samad, a Pan-Islamic Islamic Party (PAS) member of parliament, was injured after being hit in the neck by a canister, reports Amnesty.

In one YouTube video, plainclothes officers are seen kicking a protester lying on the ground while uniformed police stand by.

According to CIJ, there were accounts of people being arrested the moment they stepped off trains from the city's outskirts, or for wearing yellow T-shirts, Bersih's colour.

But the mood in Malaysia now is "euphoric", says CIJ. "Malaysians conquered their fear of doing something deemed 'illegal' by the government and reclaimed a fundamental right. We found solidarity, camaraderie and reawakened pride of being Malaysians when ethnic relations have been fractured in recent years because of the [ruling party] Barisan Nacional's hegemonic policies," said CIJ.

In the aftermath, 40 people arrested in the run-up to the rally still face prosecution. Most have been charged under Section 49 of the Societies Act for possession of illegal materials, including Bersih T-shirts.

Six members of the Socialist Party (PSM) have been indefinitely detained without charge under the Emergency Ordinance since 2 July. One of them, Member of Parliament Jeyakumar Kumar, was hospitalised on 10 July for a heart condition following days of prolonged interrogations. CIJ, Amnesty and other rights groups are focused on getting them released.

Amnesty is also calling on the U.K. government and the Vatican to press Prime Minister Najib Razak to respect human rights when the Malaysian leader visits Europe later this week.

Related stories on
  • Crackdown on electoral reform protesters violates right to free expression, says ARTICLE 19

    Police arrested more than 1,600 protesters and fired water cannons and tear gas at Bersih 2.0 rally participants demanding electoral reforms.

  • Government fuelling tensions over rally for clean elections

    A rally for free and fair elections in Malaysia hasn't even happened yet, but those who have been promoting or reporting on it are getting harassed and arrested, report the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members. The members have called on the Malaysian government to allow the 9 July march to proceed and journalists to cover the story without fear of reprisals.

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