By: Our Correspondent

In an unprecedented move, Malaysian authorities yesterday, November 18, descended on the headquarters of the election reform NGO Bersih, arresting its chairperson, Maria Chin Abdullah, and a half dozen other activists in advance of a rally against the government scheduled for the weekend.

That was only part of a wide-ranging attack on critics over the past week. On the same day, executives of the popular independent news website Malaysiakini were told they would be charged with showing material on their television unit that was “offensive in nature with intent to annoy another person.”

The charges, which sound almost laughable, came after KiniTV, as the unit is known, in July showed video of a critic urging the attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, to resign. Apandi Ali had just cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of all charges in connection with a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission investigation into the scandal-ridden 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund. State-backed 1MDB is under investigation in the United States and several other countries.

Malaysiakini is the leading independent news site in Malaysia and has been globally recognized for its work in an environment where the mainstream media is shackled by the ruling United Malays National Organisation. Its editor Steven Gan has long been a thorn in the side of the government for his outspoken views and commitment to a freer press in the country.

“The charges against Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan for doing his job is the kind of harassment that soon turns into something more, something darker, that totalitarian regimes inflict upon their journalists,” wrote Malaysiakini contributor S Thayaparan.

Sedition

Authorities have also charged many activists with sedition and other offenses. As many as 100 people have been charged with sedition over the past two to three years. Abdullah herself is under investigation for allegedly violating Section 11 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which carries the potential for three years in jail and a fine up to MR20,000 (US$4,300).

Earlier this week, a court sentenced Rafizi Ramli, the secretary general of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, to 18 months in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act by releasing a damaging audit report on the 1MDB scandal, in which nearly US$700 million was allegedly diverted from the fund into Najib’s personal account in 2013. Rafizi is appealing the sentence, which would bar him from politics for five years.

Protest politics

While police in the past have kept a tight leash on protest against Najib it is the first time they have arrested human rights activists in advance of a rally. Organizers have said they expect as many as half a million participants to take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday although previous rallies have run below the organizers’ expectations and police have downgraded their size. It is unclear what impact the arrests will have on the rally.

Early Saturday Bersih supporters were gathering for the rally under fears that pro-UMNO thugs would be unleashed to battle the protesters.

Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar has said the rally would constitute illegal assembly. However, even before the rally, there were numerous attempts to intimidate the activists, with Red-shirted demonstrators linked to the leading United Malays National Organization threatening violence. Last week, the Baju Merah – Red Shirts – massed at the offices of Malaysiakini, throwing red paint on the publication’s sign, strewing trash and demonstrating noisily before police took control.  They are said to have been responsible for damaging vehicles involved in Bersih convoys during the past month and are believed to be organizing parallel rallies near Bersih rally sites. Police did pick up Red Shirts leader Jamal Yunos, who is an Umno official, at 1:30 am Friday.

Arrested along with Bersih’s Abdullah were Mandeep Karpal, Bersih’s secretariat manager, and six others.  Over the past weeks, authorities have been raising the pressure on Bersih, claiming that financier George Soros and his Open Society Foundation, which promotes democracy, have been funding the NGO to overthrow the government.  On November 4, police questioned Abdullah over allegations Bersih had received foreign funds “to undermine parliamentary democracy.”

Crude tactics

“These arrests are the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and other human rights defenders.  They must be released immediately and unconditionally, and tomorrow’s rally must be allowed to go ahead peacefully,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Amnesty International considers all the activists arrested on Friday to be prisoners of conscience. They must be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association peacefully without any interference, threats or harassment from officials or non-state actors seeking to provoke unrest.”

Dennis Ignatius, a retired Malaysian diplomat and past contributor to Asia Sentinel, issued an open letter saying “Fear is filling our land. People are becoming increasingly afraid of their government, a government which has been amassing more and more power to harass, intimidate, threaten, punish or imprison those who oppose or disagree with it.” The full open letter can be found on the Asia Sentinel website.

In his Twitter account, Mandeep said “Bukit Aman (police headquarters) in our office. Want to rampas (seize) all our barang (belongings). It’s a raid under 124C,” referring to a section in Malaysia’s Penal Code which relates to attempts to “commit an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy and if convicted, a person can be jailed for up to 15 years.”

Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said the protests are unnecessary and blamed the unrest on his political foes, including his mentor-turned-nemesis Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003. Mahathir, who cracked down hard on street protests in his time in office, is now backing Bersih and was featured in an online video wearing the group’s iconic yellow t-shirt and calling for Najib’s ouster.

Mahathir is away in Sudan but has expressed the hope he could return in time for Saturday’s rally in KL’s historic Merdeka Square.

Police have said traffic at 58 roads in seven areas in the capital city will be diverted ahead of the rally.