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The gathering pace of the Malaysian authorities’ far-reaching crackdown on human rights defenders, the media and opposition politicians in the wake of a corruption scandal allegedly involving Prime Minister Najib Razak is alarming and must end immediately, Amnesty International said.
 
“Malaysian authorities have responded to the 1MDB corruption scandal in predictable fashion – instead of genuinely trying to get to the truth of the corruption allegations and sanction those responsible, they have been harassing, silencing and locking up those demanding accountability,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
 
“The government’s assault on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must end. Nobody should be arrested or charged simply for asking for transparency in the investigation of the 1MDB scandal or for the peaceful expression of their opinions.”
 
A series of protests in Malaysia have been planned by civil society organizations amidst allegations that government officials, including Prime Minister Najib, have misappropriated hundreds of millions of dollars from the state-owned development company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
 
On Saturday 1 August 2015, hundreds of activists from the Gabungan Anak Muda Demi Malaysia (Coalition of Youth for Malaysia) had gathered outside a mall for the “Tangkap Najib” rally in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister.
 
According to eyewitness accounts and media reports, protesters were met with heavy police presence. When protesters peacefully chanted for PM Najib’s resignation, the police began arresting individuals with unnecessary force, resulting in minor injuries to several protesters.
 
More than 30 protesters were arrested during the rally, and all will be investigated for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and organizing “unlawful assemblies”.
 
“The police reaction to what was a peaceful protest was outrageous. Those officers responsible for using unnecessary or excessive force must be held to account, and arbitrary bans on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly – guaranteed in Malaysia’s constitution – must end,” said Rupert Abbott.
 
A day before the rally, “Tangkap Najib” organizers Adam Adli and Syukri Razab, were arrested, along with activist Mandeep Singh, another rally organizer who was held after turning himself in. All three were charged for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and were released as of 4 August.
 
Activists in Malaysia are planning to stage a mass demonstration – known as Bersih 4 – on 29-30 August 2015, which will demand better governance and immediate institutional reforms. There is a real risk that the government’s crackdown on dissent will only intensify as the mass rally draws closer.
 
Wider crackdown
 
The arrests over the weekend are just the latest moves by the Malaysian authorities to silence criticism. Several other protest leaders, human rights defenders and others have been harassed or charged over the past weeks and months, many under the Sedition Act.
 
The government has also targeted the media. Three outlets, The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly and Sarawak Report, were suspended on 24 July and 19 July 2015, respectively, for their reporting said to be “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or public and national interest.” Meanwhile, political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as “Zunar”, is potentially facing decades in prison for tweets criticizing the judiciary.
 
At least two opposition lawmakers – MPs Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli – have been slapped with travel bans apparently due to their criticism of the government’s handling of the 1MDB crisis.
 
And opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim remains in jail serving a five year sentence after being convicted on trumped up charges of “sodomy”. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience and is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.